'M' spells terror to a T Review: Fritz Lang's 1931 masterpiece clearly shows how not seeing is believing.

December 26, 1997|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"What hath 'The Silence of the Lambs' wrought?" That question was put in these very pages recently, on the release of the latest in a spate of films based on serial killers who dispatch their victims with Gothic brutality.

But the question might just as easily be, "What hath 'M' wrought?"

"M," the 1931 film by German director Fritz Lang that Kino International is releasing in a restored print, may not be the very first movie that dealt with the pursuit of a mad killer, but it is still the original. A masterpiece that combined German Expressionist visual style, with its long shadows and extreme camera angles, and the intimate, theatrical performances of Germany's Kammerspiel tradition, "M" was also a prescient allegory in which Lang chillingly anticipated the politics that would soon grip that country. At a time when Hollywood seems to be in a never-ending race to make each movie more graphic than the last, "M" is a reminder of how powerful metaphor can be.

Based on a true case, "M" stars Peter Lorre as a man who is compulsively stalking and murdering the children of Dusseldorf. When the eighth child goes missing, the police widen their search and begin to raid the rathskellers often frequented by the city's criminal element. Outraged that they are being unfairly accused -- and that their "businesses" are being curtailed -- Dusseldorf's motley assortment of pickpockets, prostitutes and petty thieves band together to find the perpetrator.

After they manage to corner him, they subject him to their own version of a trial, wherein he makes an impassioned plea for clemency, a speech that heightens the arbitrary divisions between justice and mob rule.

There are many reasons to see "M," not the least of which is a seminal performance by Lorre as a man overcome by a compulsion that he cannot define or explain. But for the filmgoers who flocked to such contemporary iterations on the theme as "Kiss the Girls" or "Seven," Lang offers a sort of primer on what makes a film truly terrifying and grisly.

Rather than show the murders, Lang chose a more oblique -- and more powerful -- means to portray them, focusing his camera on a little girl's lost balloon, for example, or on empty stairwells and attic rooms while her mother calls for her. As Lang told Peter Bogdanovich, "I force the audience to become a collaborator of mine; by suggesting something I achieve a greater impression, a greater involvement, than by showing it."

The horrors of "M" are juxtaposed with fascinating images of a Germany on the brink of cataclysmic social change, from the neat, orderly world of middle-class hausfraus to futuristic window displays and psychological diagnoses of the murderer based on his handwriting.

Paranoia, anxiety, vague sexual undertones and a nihilistic world in which the good guys can't always be distinguished from the bad guys. Sound familiar? Between its themes and its stark, dramatic visual style, "M" might just be the very first film noir.

"M" opens today at the Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St.

'M' (1931)

Starring Peter Lorre

Directed by Fritz Lang

Released by Kino International

Rating Unrated

Sun Score: ****

Pub Date: 12/26/97

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