The Inspired Unpleasantness of “M”

The notion that art can be aesthetically successful without giving the audience pleasure, as conventionally understood, is nothing new. We’ve been crowding into horror movies and tear-jerkers since the silent era of cinema. We’ve been grappling with the paradox of tragedy since Aristotle’s Poetics. I’ve even mentioned the problem on this blog before when discussing my love of murder mysteries. In most great artworks to which the paradox applies, though, one seems to derive something that resembles a traditional pleasure from them: excitement, emotional connection, even enlightenment. I don’t get any of that from (dir. Fritz Lang, 1931). What I get is pure, life-draining unpleasantness.

When I call M an unpleasant film, I’m not really talking its subject matter, though that too is disturbing. The film follows a German city’s attempts to capture a serial killer (played by Peter Lorre) who has been targeting young girls. The police, the citizenry, even the crime bosses: everyone has an interest in bringing the killer to justice, yet he has eluded their capture for months, and as the film starts there’s been no progress on the case. We enter the story to see a world already in a constant state of alert, a world where the killer’s presence is so pervasive that children sing counting-out rhymes based on his exploits.

When written out in like that, the premise of M reads more like a particularly bleak episode of Criminal Minds than like a probing work of psychological horror. Granted, most crime procedurals don’t boast the acting talents of Peter Lorre, who is capable of transitioning from controlled calculation to bulging-eyed mania so gradually it’s difficult to notice. (His near-meltdown trying to order a drink at a café is just as powerful as his total meltdown during his trial-by-angry-mob.) Nor do such shows capture an entire city’s paranoia so well as this film, in which the accusation “Kindermörder” (child murderer) is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, waiting for the slightest provocation to slip out.

But M is not remotely graphic in how it handles the killer’s violence. In fact, it doesn’t even depict his crimes, only the build-up and the aftermath. The filmmakers observe a certain level of bienséance here (or whatever the German-language equivalent is). There is little luridness beyond the premise; all such material is left to suggestion. We are not shown, for example, the actual murder of Elsie Beckmann at the start of the film, but only the evidence that she’s gone: her ball rolling in the fields, her balloon entangled in the power lines.

Of course, that bienséance ultimately makes the killer’s work more horrifying, not more palatable. We as viewers are denied full knowledge of the murders, and are thus forced to imagine how they were executed, or else force the thought of doing so from our minds. We may know the killer’s identity, but in terms of confronting the full truth of the murders, we’re hardly better off than the grieving parents and the police commissioner. Unnerved and unenlightened, what can we do but speculate about what happens in that mysterious world off-screen?

“Off-screen,” as it happens, is a very important location in M. Not only is that where most of the film’s violence occurs (either during the story proper or as part of the backstory), but also it’s where much of film’s dialogue is spoken. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film, and with it Lang experimented with the synchronicity, or rather the lack of it, between sound and image. Famously, Mrs. Beckmann’s calls for Elsie when she doesn’t come home from school carry far beyond her body, out in to the vacant city streets—a common technique today, but a novel one for 1931. Conversations between characters in the “here” and “present” play out over imagery from “there” and “the past,” leaving the audience uncertain as to where we really are in time and space. Few things are so unpleasant as such disorientation.

Just as pioneering (and upsetting) as the mismatch of sound and image are the places where Fritz Lang omits sound entirely. Street scenes will play out with no audio track whatsoever: no dialogue, no ambient noises, no sound effects, no even a score. We see people walking about, cars rushing by, matter slamming into matter, and we expect some response from the universe. Instead, we hear nothing, and one wonders whether even the laws of physics have been corrupted in the city’s panicked state. To hear the killer’s trademark whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is almost a relief in these circumstances. It is reassurance, for a moment, that the world is not wholly broken. At least, it is until you remember what that whistling portends.

Finally, one cannot escape the context in which was produced. Politically: the Nazis were only a few years away from seizing power in Germany, and the film takes a rather dim view of the masses who would enable their rise. (To quote Roger Ebert’s appraisal: “In searching for words to describe the faces of the actors, I fall hopelessly upon ‘piglike’.”) Artistically: I learned from Ben Mankiewicz’s post-screening remarks on TCM that Lang was not always humane to his actors; for M he had Lorre thrown down a stairwell a dozen times for the sake of the getting the best take. Lorre never forgave Lang for that, and I’m skeptical that film history ought to forgive him, either.

There is nothing exciting about the horror of M, nothing like the sudden gasp of a haunted house jump-scare or the rough jostling of a roller coaster. It is film that deadens the audience, fills it with a dread that the members will carry with them beyond the theater. is a fantastic film. But if someone claims to have enjoyed watching it, I’ll be struck dumb.

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Thanks for reading! I’d you’d like to read more of my thoughts on film, then you might enjoy the piece I wrote about how Stagecoach establishes its interpersonal conflicts.

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