Oct 29, 1997 at 12:00 am

Director Fritz Lang's legendary M (Germany, 1931) is a film which emerged from the shadowy, irrational melodrama of post-WWI German expressionism and anticipated the more grounded, semi-documentary police procedurals of post-World War II America. Almost 70 years after its debut, it still seems an audacious achievement, both for the directorial momentum which belies the stereotype of the stilted early talkie and for the shifting, ambiguous tone with which it surveys its grim subject matter.

At the center of M is Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), who appears to be a plump, overgrown child disappearing in his overcoat and fedora, but who is, in fact, the notorious murderer of little girls who has the great city of Berlin simmering with paranoia. Having established Beckert's monstrousness and shown, with poetic terseness, the grief he creates, Lang's film then takes a very modern turn. Beckert, we learn, is not just a loathsome creature, but an impediment to business as usual -- not only are the average folk being forced to eye each other more limpidly than usual, but the parallel hierarchies of law and crime are grinding to an obsessed halt. The longer Beckert roams free, the more embarrassment for the police and the more heat for the criminals.

Lang makes it clear that the difference between the ruling order and the underworld is one of method rather than morality. At the time, this seemed like a satirically sour expression of Germany's postwar degeneration, but today it plays more like conventional wisdom -- or at least everyday cynicism.

What remains fresh, though, is Lang's innovative tone, which links the film to both his earlier Metropolis (1926) and his later American noirs, a signature style that's hard-edged and flatly brutal.

As Beckert, Lorre actually has little screen time, though his volcanic outpouring of self-loathing at the climax is one of the most famous sequences in film history. The ambivalence we are led to feel for his character, clearly beyond the pale but still deserving of our pity, leads to the film's final modernist flourish, as it asks the old question, "Who are we to judge?" and then pointedly offers no answers.

The Detroit Film Theatre presents a fully restored print, featuring seven minutes of previously missing footage, a remastered sound track and new subtitles. Not to be missed.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].