On the Fourth of July weekend, The Madison Theatre did six showings of Fritz Lang’s M (1931), which turns 85 this year. They did two showings on Friday night, and four showings across Saturday. I went to the final showing, at 9:00, and parked around the corner, near St. Andrew’s Church, which has been kind enough to lend their beautiful sanctuary for big-screen showings of several silents. The theatre is only about a mile from where I live, and I’ve walked to the theatre and the library across the street several times, but I felt it would be safer to drive because it was after dark.
This was my third time seeing M, and my first time seeing it on the big screen. If you have the chance, there’s nothing quite like seeing a classic film the way it was meant to be seen, on the big screen, with an audience. Watching it at home on TV or your computer screen doesn’t even come close.
The film opens as a group of children are playing a counting-out game invoking the threat of a child-murderer who’s been stalking Berlin. This greatly upsets their mothers, but one of the women reminds them that if they can hear and see their children playing, at least it means they’re safe.
The murderer soon makes the acquaintance of little Elsie Beckmann, who’s going home from school for lunch. The tune whistled by the murderer, “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” eventually leads to his undoing and makes his capture possible. But for now, he gets away with his crime, and Elsie’s mother is frantic when she never comes home. The murderer butters his victim up first, buying her a balloon person from a blind vendor and talking with her in a very friendly fashion.
I really like how we don’t immediately see the murderer’s face, but see him only from behind or in shadowed profile. I also like how we don’t hear his voice immediately, and how it’s probably not till over halfway through the film that he finally begins talking and acting as a true leading character.
In the wake of Elsie’s murder, the perp sends a letter to the press, saying he’s not done yet. The police begin trying to trace him through fingerprint analysis and graphology (handwriting analysis). During the investigation, the police also look through the records of recently-released psychiatric patients with a history of hurting children, and question members of Berlin’s criminal underworld.
This upsets and offends the criminals so badly, they decide to start their own manhunt and work independently of the police.
The cops presently find some very damning evidence in the murderer’s apartment, and wait there to arrest him. In the meantime, the murderer is foiled in his attempts to abduct another victim, but then succeeds in befriending another young girl. He buys her a balloon and sweets, and is in front of a toy store with her when one of the underworld criminals runs up and sneakily marks his shoulder with an M. The blind balloon vendor recognised the tune he was whistling, and tipped off one of his friends.
Now that the murderer is marked, the manhunt intensifies, and he’s tracked all the way to a large office complex, where he’s unable to escape or hide. One of the watchmen the criminals have tied up triggers an alarm, and they make a run for it with the murderer. However, they’ve inadvertently left one of their friends, Franz, behind.
While Franz is trying to stall the police, the criminals have the murderer brought before a kangaroo court in an abandoned distillery. Up until this point, it’s seemed like a clear-cut case of a sick, slick, unrepentant murderer trying to get away with his crimes, but when he finally begins to speak, all bets are off.
I won’t spoil anything that happens after this, but suffice it to say, his speech in his own defence is so powerful and really forces the viewer to examine one’s own sense of right and wrong. It kind of reminds me of Charlie Chaplin’s speech near the end of Monsieur Verdoux (1947), which almost made me rethink my support of the death penalty. When the mind is very sick, should we punish the perpetrator or show compassion and attempt rehabilitation?