Fritz Lang’s M, his first sound film, is startling in its critique of the state and its fundamental distrust of public institutions. Its bleak portrayal of modernism and the ability of law enforcement to maintain order seems to invite its audience to share in its own skepticism of authority and government. Yet it is difficult to make a coherent political reading of this film because it also dismisses the ability of the mob to dispense justice and punishment, or at the very least it is also critical of it. When a monstrous criminal is suddenly humanized in the film’s final act, we are left with a moral puzzle to untangle, one that still resounds in current discussions of criminal justice and ethics. Fritz Lang gives these debates visual and material form, but his grim worldview seems to be nihilistic about the prospects of resolving them. No matter what form justice takes, there is no consoling the inconsolable.
M is part procedural, part courtroom drama and part detective story. When a child murderer hits the streets of a German city, the police is pressured to capture the heinous criminal. At the same time, the underworld composed of gangsters and mafiosos are also implicated by this murderer’s crimes as increased police activity and raids also compromise their operations. This shadowy figure who exists even beyond illegality and the structures that shape it undermine institutions, whether or not they are legitimate before the eyes of the law. Thus, both the police and organized crime go on a manhunt using the resources available to them to quell this threat.
It is at this junction in the film that Lang depicts the police as inept and unable to answer the public’s calls to capture this monster. Investigative techniques that are based on science and empiricism are painfully slow and inefficient. But more importantly, police officers are depicted as unnecessarily aggressive in order to make the presence of the state felt. Because the murderer’s identity is unknown, each person is a suspect and is treated as such. That is the catch-22 faced by law enforcement: the public demands and places pressure for the police to deliver results, but they also detest the intrusions on private life that it necessitates. Everyone is caught in a frustrating circuitous loop that yields no results.
Lang juxtaposes the way the police goes about hunting for this criminal with the underworld’s own strategy. In a playfully edited sequences, we see how both parties differ in their approach as their meetings are interspersed with each other. The gangsters decide to employ the city’s beggars in order to create a carefully disguised surveillance network designed to find the killer. This system, unconstrained by the formalities and the red tape of bureaucracy, undermines the institutions tasked to uphold the law. While the police are left to grab at straws, forcing to treat the most mundane objects as ‘evidence’ and creating leads out of the most tenuous suggestions, Lang sends a clear message on their inefficacy when a blind beggar eventually identifies the killer based simply on a whistled tune.
But while the mob successfully captures the killer, it is far less successful at trying him. When the man pleads insanity, the makeshift court they assemble comes to a standstill. What do we do to people who are beholden to the impulses of their aberrant nature, people whose actions arise from psychological processes beyond their control? It is quite interesting that the gangsters decided to give him a semblance of due process and a shot at a fair trial by providing him with his own defense counsel. But what was supposed to be a formality became a straitjacket. The audience is made to believe that his death sentence was already something set in stone, Lang throws in a curveball and presents a compelling case otherwise.
There are a lot of elements here like the use of shadows and darkness, the realism, the romanticization of the underworld and the aesthetics of German Expressionist cinema that have influenced the successive noir films. But Fritz Lang’s classic stands the test of time because of his prescient take on crime and urban life. He deploys his cinematic technique that he previously used in movies such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligeri and Metropolis to demonstrate the power of cinema to make pointed political statements. This is what makes M canonical and ahead of its time.