M (1931)

Directed by Fritz Lang, with Peter Lorre, at the BFI

A very different cinematic experience from the previous night. Not just black and white, but also very slow, with some scenes more like tableaux vivants. Long parts were silent, as if the transition to talkies was not yet complete or fully embraced. And yet its story is just as uncompromising as High Rise. A child murderer, unnameable horrors – and yet Peter Lorre, often seen through shop-window reflections and behind foliage, gives a tremendous performance in the final scene. Here he is finally dragged out of the shadows to plead for his life, transforming himself from hateful bogeyman to a horribly flawed human being who at least deserves to be tried by the law rather than torn to pieces by the mob. . . . I think. The mob did put up a good case too.

The filming is brilliant, and I reminded myself that some films of this era were pioneering. Even if they seem corny or if the acting is too theatrical for modern tastes, they were making their own rules and setting the standards for later filmmakers.

The mirror image of the police and the criminals: both sides methodical with their own procedures.

It’s hard not to take an historical view, too. The beggars taking care of the city’s children: here they are benign, but you can also see them as forerunners of Stasi informers. And so many beggars: only 13 years since the war which mutilated and damaged so many of them, followed by the years of inflation which probably did for the rest. Some older actors with obvious duelling scars. Even middle-class card games seemed to be out of Otto Dix. And – descent into Godwinism – little square moustaches and big leather coats had no negative connotations then. You can see why, after years of turmoil, the film preferred to end with the law being upheld rather than the mob having its way.

I also recalled Randy Newman’s song “In Germany before the war”.

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