October 23, 2006

The personal and the political in M

M is often viewed rightly as the masterpiece of German cinema and was one of the greatest films made by its great director, Fritz Lang- an overtly antinazi film it reflects upon themes of guilt and individual responsibility and this blog will no doubt turn to it again- like a great book, a great film can be reviewed as many times as one likes and still produce new insights.

M is a uniquely fruitful film though for the political enquirer because it doesn't have a conventional story- there is progress but the viewer makes few friends watching the film and many acquaintances. Characters flit across the screen to give us the impression of the terrorised city. More important than their character is their reaction to a specific situation and the combinations of attitudes makes the situation in which we are interested. Unlike most films therefore, M is truly about a community of people not inidividuals. Individuals are shown only as their actions impact upon the community.

The recent exercise in making a blog out of people's experiences of 17th October will fail as an exercise precisely because it doesn't recognise the entities out of which politics and history are fashioned. Like M, the politician and historian- and by extension the ordinary person, only recognises the individual as they intrude into the world that they perceive. Politics in some way becomes a metaphor for life- into a moment of fame the individual comes and then dodges out again- coming out of and going back into the dark just as the characters in M emerge from the shadows and then vanish back into them.

This lends the film a terrifying intensity- like politics itself the mob whirls upon the stage as if from nowhere- terrifying and scattering individuals before it. The civilised town turns hysterical thanks to the murders of little girls and innocent citizens are arrested on the streets by citizen militias for nothing more than their presence at the wrong time and wrong place. The nightmare of liberals reflected in works as various as this film and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (see the murder of the poet Cinna Act 3 Scene 1) is realised in the dark. Literature here merely imitates life- remember the News of the World British campaign against paedophiles which ended in attacks on a man with a particular kind of neck brace and a paediotrician.Peter Lorre in his great final speech speaks of shadows following him through the streets of Berlin- these are both the shadows of his conscience, of his victims but also the shadows of the mob which emerges at the end to confront him but earlier has confronted the innocent as well.

The greatness of M therefore lies in the lack of more than one great character and in the terrors of the crowd- it lies in the ways that as the law fails to find a responsible party, the population is unleashed and a righteous crowd gathers to enact justice. M is a nightmare- in which every individual ceases focusing on himself and focuses his moral judgement on the wrongs of others, where the mob replaces the state as the organ of judgement and where a court of criminals passes a sentence of execution.