M. is not a film noir, but it stands as one of the great precedents of the noir movement, helmed by a director who would go on to direct many influential noir films, and an actor who would become an icon of noir himself. It's a film that bridges the gap between noir and German Expressionism, grounding the formalist styles of Expressionism with a more realist, gritty approach. M., despite its sometimes whimsical inventions(an odd phrase for a movie about the hunt for a child killer, but I hope to make my use of it clear) is recognizably set in the real and the day to day. It's clear that Lang had an understanding of his subjects, but also no real sympathy, making this a view on society that looks ugly, dirty, and always on the brink of chaos.
The opening scene sets the stage for M.'s mix of the mundane, the menacing, and the theatrical in perhaps the most straightforward manner possible. The film opens on a group of children, circled around a girl standing in the center. The girls is repeating a sing-songy chant about a child killer, and pointing at each of the children in turn. As the girl gets to a certain refrain, anyone she's pointing at is 'out' of the game. This strikes many as a morbid, foreboding scene, yet as a parent, and one who remembers his own childhood, I had a different reaction to it. Consider it from the children's point of view; they are playing a game. To the children the song and its connotations hold no sense of danger, death in this sense only means being out of the game until the next round. To children death is not the same as it is for adults, and many children's games center around the idea death either metaphorically or literally. This view of death being intertwined with child's play will come up again and again in the film.
The first sign of actual trouble is when one of the children's mothers leans out over a balcony and shouts down for them to stop singing that awful song. Something about her alarm spreads to the audience; any parent would, under normal circumstances, see this as typical playground behavior. What has changed here?
There's an interesting visual interlude here, When the mother retreats back into the apartment, Lang holds the shot for 10 seconds. After a few moments the children begin singing again, and their insubordination is presented in such a manner as to make it humorous, and yet we remain on the empty balcony. Lang cuts next to an empty stairway, and it's another 6 seconds before the mother reappears, carrying a load of laundry. 16 seconds is an eternity for a film to be without any visible focal point or activity, and it stirs an anticipation, a dread for what is about to happen.
Other notes of playfulness pop up throughout the film. Becker's red pencil he uses to write to the police, the tune from Peer Gynt that he whistles until it's jauntiness becomes a stand-in for the murders, in much the same way John William's score for Jaws would become a stand-in for the actual shark. The Brechtian concept of a beggar's union, where the homeless can buy props to improve their panhandling successes, sell goods and foods they've scavenged, and are assigned streetcorners to work in the same way many office workers get their daily projects. Lang gets a few good sardonic laughs out of how similarly the cops and criminals operate.
It's interesting to watch M. with an idea of historical context and try to decode what all of the various institutions represent. M. was co-written by Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou, and the film's symbolic meaning seems such a loaded topic when you realize this film came out in 1931, when the nazi party was on the rise(though not yet completely in power). In a few years Hitler would be in power, Fritz Lang would have escaped from Germany to Hollywood, and Thea von Harbou would have joined the nazi party. It seems unlikely that M. could seem so metaphorically rich while not signifying anything, and yet the differing political viewpoints of its authors make that meaning difficult to parse.
Breaking it down a bit, M. has four major groups that almost every character falls into. We have The Law; the cops and detectives who hunt desperately for Becker. We have The Criminals, whose search for Becker is a means to an end, as it will get the cop to stop hassling them so much. There's The Public, who live in fear and descend into mob mentality at the merest hint of suspicious behavior. Finally there are The Beggars, who have formed their own shadow society largely unseen and unnoticed by the other three groups. They have no stake in the search, but The Criminals use their societal invisibility to make them the perfect eyes and ears in their search for Becker. Taken together, the four groups hang in almost perfect symmetry, with Becker, the only distinct character not belonging to any other group, occupying the center everyone else revolves around.
So, who does Becker represent? What is he a stand-in for? The outsider? The other? The very idea of a society led astray? Certainly he seem monstrous beyond belief, but he's also given more moments of sympathy than many other characters. He's seen early in the film prodding his face in a mirror, pulling skin to make hideous faces as if he's just gotten around to noticing he has one. Or, as Roger Ebert puts it, is he trying to see the monster inside that others see? Becker has a speech at the end of the film, as he faces a crowd of accusers, where he expounds on his impossible to ignore compulsion that he neither controls nor understands. Certainly this strikes a chord with the lifelong criminals who are slave to their own uncontrollable compulsions.
Becker is a virus in this film, or perhaps more accurately, a cancer. A threat that grows within the carefully structured organism, unnoticed until it's too late. But he had to have the opportunity to grow. It takes a blinded society to allow a man like Becker to not only develop, but flourish. If there were any real justice in the film's world, Becker would have been treated or helped long before his first murder occurred.
It can be hard to tell who the film expects us to sympathize with. At certain points everyone on screen will become sympathetic, but often that is due only to their station. We sympathize with the parents because they have lost their children, but the film points out that they would not have lost their children had they been paying attention to them. We root for the cops because we want Becker stopped, but they behave thuggishly and with an entitled snobbery that is continually offputting. Our sympathies grow for the criminals, as we see how the cops mistreat them in their search for Becker, but the film never shies away from letting us know these are not good men. The only ones to really escape any sort of blame are the beggars, who have made their abandonment from society a mutual affair, with their own separate society and their own governmental systems.
In my initial conception, I believe that the scenes concerning the plans of the cops, and the plans of the criminals, with their symmetrically framed smoke-filled rooms and speeches that echo each other, represent the shadowy forces that conspire to focus on a highly visible threat so that they may pursue their true ambitions without public scrutiny. The Public, with their tendency to fire-and-pitchfork witch hunts and mob mentality, represents a population eager to allow that subterfuge in exchange for a sense of security. That's a notion that would have seemed powerful in the early thirties, and it's surprising that the nazi censors let it pass. It's also an idea that should seem pretty powerful to modern audiences.