Framework: Fritz Lang’s M

The first-ever Framework column, a year-long DIY film school with 52 essential films to expand your consciousness, focuses its lens on Fritz Lang’s 1931 German Expressionist classic.

Framework is a year-long DIY film school; 52 essential films to expand your consciousness.

M stands for murderer in this German Expressionist film from director Frtiz Lang, which reproduces the pre-WWII climate of Germany in the early 30s. Peter Lorre, cast in his earliest villainous role, stars as Hans Bekert, the serial killer who paralyzes a working-class Berlin neighbourhood with his heinous crime of child murder. In an effort to catch the killer at any cost, the police work for days to piece together countless witness statements and dead-end clues.

Night after night, bars and private clubs are raided in search of the culprit, but he is nowhere to be found. As fear and suspicion appropriate the daily interactions of neighbourhood dwellers, they wait on edge for the killer to be revealed before they are able to trust again. Outraged at the incompetence of the law, the Berlin underworld organizes a scheme to run a parallel manhunt by employing hundreds of Berlin’s street beggars. Their outsourced help forms a grid-like lockdown, creating an inescapable web of besiegement that proves to be ironclad.

The most interesting component to M is that is has no centre. It is objective in its presentation, leaving room for the crime (and manhunt) to be seen through various eyes — the law, the underworld criminals, the culprit and the victim. Its refusal to be subjective allows it to present each case from either side of good and evil. Is the underworld really concerned with catching a killer, or have they positioned themselves in their rise to power to take over the law?

The result of M’s objective stance ends up placing the responsibility for punishment in the hands of the people, and subsequently in the thoughts of the audience who are free to decide the killer’s fate. The concept (and danger) of groupthink is explored in the harrowing last scenes. The film should be treated as a compass that has lost its ethical due north, so it has no choice but to spin endlessly between societal law and a lawless society.

Released in 1931 and originally (aptly) titled Murder Among Us, M is steeped in political symbolism, and is largely considered to be Lang’s best and most accessible work. It is one of the first psychological thrillers to be brought to the screen, and will remain a player in the canon of film history for its innovative use of image and sound that connects the film’s space.

M is part of The Criterion Collection and is available to rent at Boîte Noire and Le Septième in the east, Avenue Video in the west, and iTunes if you’re a homebody.

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