BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: Lang’s German, expressionist noir.

IT’S EERIE how prescient Lang’s thriller M was. One of the first great sound films, Lang freed the camera up, and utilised specific sounds, and in the process, along with other European directors, helped free sound cinema up from its early stagy or musical confines. But its subject matter was, and is still rather daring – the story of a child killer (with hints of paedophilia in there too) who drags a city to hysteria. Lang muddies up the morality – there’s a strong current of black humour throughout – right the way through to its bravura ending, and in the process implicates the viewer and those who are judging him.

But this isn’t really a serial killer film. The killer (played to eye-popping perfection by Peter Lorre in one of the screen’s great villainous performances) is only the catalyst for the stories. Lang merely hints at the killing: a lost balloon, a rolling ball, a sensationalist headline. Instead it’s society that becomes Lang’s focus, from the lynch mobs chasing innocent individuals to the frantic press, to the interfering politicians to the overworked and stressed policemen. Lang notches up the irony, as the underground criminals, embark on a hypocritical quest to free the city of this child murderer, but mainly for the fact that he is bad for business.

Lang depicts a moral panic, the inner workings of a society in fear. In this respect, it’s almost a premonition of the moral panic that’d lead to the Holocaust in Germany, where a “threat” is created, and violence becomes the natural and horrific consequence. But it was Lang’s trick to have the ‘victim’ a child murderer/paedophile – arguably the lowest of the low in society, and a figure so reviled, that Lang manages to somehow elicit sympathy for his plight. Lorre’s final soliloquy devastatingly implicates all those who judge, but also does little to whitewash his actions. Lang shows a Germany that’s rotting, that’s guilty, that’s repressed, that’s heading in its inexorable slide towards Nazism. But it’s not just Germany Lang is critiquing. Of course, Lang was soon to leave Germany (though not reportedly in the heroic way he described his escape, after being offered a plum job by Goebbels in the new Nazi government) and suffered from shellshock from World War One, so there was a clear direction of attack towards Germany. But Lang is also attacking the way societies hypocritically gets themselves into uproars over particular issues, the way the unfortunates are reviled by a hypocritical society, and in the process, invented the rules for serial killer and police procedural movies for decades to come.