(director: Fritz Lang; screenwriters: Thea von Harbou/Paul Falkenberg/Adolf Janesen, Karl Vash; cinematographer: Fritz Arno Wagner; cast: Peter Lorre (Franz Becker), Otto Wernicke (Inspector Lohmann), Gustaf Grundgens (Schranker), Ellen Widman (Mme. Becker), Inge Landgut (Elsie Beckmann), Theodor Loos (Police Commissioner), Theo Lingen (Bauernfaenger), Georg John (Blind Beggar), Franz Stein (Minister), Friedrich Gnaß (Burglar), Paul Kemp (Pickpocket), Karl Platen (Nightwatchmen), Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur (Chief of Police); Runtime: 118; Nero Film; 1931- Germany-in German with English subtitles)
“Peter Lorre became a recognized star as a result of this film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Fritz Lang was a leading German filmmaker by 1931 before the Nazi regime got full control of the country. In 1933, when they did get full control, he emigrated to America, worrying that he might become out of favor with the Nazis due to having Jewish relations and would also be reduced to making propaganda films if he stayed. He left behind his pro-Nazi wife Thea von Harbou–the screenwriter of all his films in the ’20s and ’30s, including “M.”
In Lang’s first talkie, a film about a child-murderer, it was made with surprisingly the highest sound quality. This is quite an achievement if you keep in mind how this was Lang’s first experience with that new medium. The film was at first called Murderers Among Us. Because of that title, Lang was denied permission to use any of Germany’s film studios, that is, until he changed the title to “M” (the initial standing for Murderer) when he discovered that the Nazis had taken the original title to refer to them.
In the following articles, one in the Los Angeles Herald Express, 12 August 1947 and the other an article by Lang entitled “Why I am interested in Murder” New York, 1947, Lang stated why he has such an avid interest in murder: “Gradually, and at times reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that every human mind harbors a latent compulsion to murder.” He goes on to state: “I have tried to approach the murderer imaginatively to show him as a human being possessed of some demon that has driven him beyond the ordinary borderlines of human behavior, and not the least part of whose tragedy is that by murder he never resolves his conflicts.”
You can chalk “M” up as a lasting masterpiece, created with a passion for detail and a successful transitional film from the silents to the talkies. It took into its mise en scene the best of both those worlds. At its best, “M” emulates the accomplishments found in all the great works of poetry. It is still the greatest of all the serial killer films made, even if it is erroneously considered by some to be now only a museum piece. Lang’s film spawned the serial killer genre. The worthwhile modern films to follow were such as Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs. But Lang’s thriller has the advantage of not only understanding the psycho’s motivations but encompassing how an entire society was drawn into finding the murderer, as most of the other films revolve only around a narrow search for the serial killer. And when you compare it to a slick thriller like the recent “American Psycho,” it is not difficult to see how shallow that one is in comparison.
This thriller was based on a real-life manhunt in Dusseldorf for a serial child-murderer, Peter Kurten. The film is subversive in many ways; it expresses Lang’s many long-held opinions on why the murderer can’t help doing what he does and how society has become debased. It also explores the responsibility a mother has to watch her own children, the pros and cons of capital punishment; and, he also aims to point out what goes beyond the scope of human interest and emotions, as he wanted to make a statement relating the murders to the unequal distribution of wealth. He shows how the rich have more free time to look after their children because they have the financial resources, while the poor are busy working. He, thereby, purposefully, opens and closes the film with the children playing unsupervised games in their working-class neighborhoods.
The big German city is aghast at the number of little girls reported murdered in the newspaper, as Lang’s camera sweeps the different city sections. There are different wide-angled shots and shots from his signature overhead sweeps (something he used first, despite Orson Welles taking so many bows for this kind of shot and never acknowledging that Lang did it first). He also uses long close-ups, as each group is shown with their own reaction to the events.
The little girls play outside in their yard and sing songs about the bogeyman who will come and take them away. Their mothers react with pained expressions on their faces, while they are busy scrubbing clothes. The police, under the leadership of the corpulent Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), complain that they have no clues to help them and that the public is not helping them by giving them false leads. This is wearing the police down, as they are pressured to be working around-the-clock to catch the culprit.
The underworld is upset that the police are cracking down on their illegal establishments by repeated raids and arresting them at will, and thereby putting a big dent into their business. They are particularly upset that the police should think that it is one of them who is committing this low-life crime. Under the leadership of a renown gangster, Schranker (Gustaf Grundgens), the various gangs get together with the beggars’ organization called in to help. They plan to capture the killer and take care of him with their own method of justice. What is noteworthy to observe, is how Lang draws parallels between the police investigation and the underworld’s. The police take fingerprints from a letter the killer wrote the newspaper; they have a psychologist profile the killer as someone who is a pathological sex pervert; they note the type of pencil he used, the brand of cigarettes he smoked, and the type of wood table he wrote on. While, on the other hand, the underworld has everyone in their organization become their eyes and ears, as they put someone on every block to watch for the killer.
The murderer, Franz Becker (Peter Lorre), is first heard telling the girl he is about to kill, what a beautiful ball she has and then asking the little girl her name. His face is not seen, it is only seen that he is wearing a fedora as a cute little girl, Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut), tells him her name. She is bouncing a brightly colored ball off a post that has an announcement for a $10,000 marks reward for information about the killer. He lures the innocent girl away by buying her candy and a balloon from a blind vender (Georg John), as the vender will recognize him later by his distinguishable whistle taken from a few bars of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” This tune will become the ominous leitmotif throughout the film. Since Lorre couldn’t whistle, it was Lang’s whistling that was used. Her death will first be telegraphed to the viewer by her balloon blowing in the wind as it is stuck on the telegraph wires, and with her mother’s sad expression as she stares at her empty chair by the dining table that has her plate and silverware on it.
Panic reaches across the city anew with the discovery of Elsie Beckmann’s death, with citizens accusing others of being the killer for illogical reasons, of petty criminals being picked up for minor offenses who challenge the police by saying: ‘Better catch the child murderer.’ Because of the murders people are willing to go to any extreme to blame someone for the crime, even if they have no proof, as an innocent man is attacked by a mob after just talking to a little girl. It is evident that Lang saw here the festering wounds Nazism would later on fully exploit to its own advantages, in a society that was already decadent and had lost its sense of responsibility. He sensed the masses were looking for law and order and would even readily accept the Nazi dictatorship that limited their freedom, just because they wanted a change.
The police and the underworld begin to close in on the killer using their different styles of tracking him down. But, what remains striking is how similar they are in character, as Lang shows how each of them meet to handle the problem — with Schranker representing the underworld being equal to Lohmann, who represents the police.
The earthy Lohmann being a stickler for details finds spelling errors in the newspaper note the killer sent, indicating the killer is not well-educated. He also gets a list of all the mental patients released in the past few years and has his men check them out. One of his men goes to Becker’s apartment and will bring back evidence of Ariston cigarettes, the same brand found at the crime scene; and, he will later on show that the killer wrote the note on the windowsill of Becker’s apartment. The police will have a stakeout in that apartment, waiting for the killer’s return.
Meanwhile, the blind balloon vender recognizes the whistle of the killer’s, as the killer is again luring a little girl with his friendly ways. The vender has his helper follow the killer and too make the tail easier, a large ‘M’ chalk mark is placed on the shoulder of the killer’s coat by the young helper as he bumps into the Murderer. The whole scene with the citizens in pursuit of the killer, was reminiscent of the leftist Bertold Brecht’s “The Three Penny Opera.” All the venders signal each other with whistles and chase the killer into an office building. Later in the night, the underworld criminals overtake the two watchmen and eventually find the killer in the attic.
What gives this film its power, is how the entire city is analyzed by how they react to the crime. When the underworld corners Lorre, trapping him like an animal, the audience watches him scurry around for dear life in the office building. When they capture and take him to an abandoned warehouse, they give him a mock trial in a dark dungeonlike basement. This is just the right atmosphere to bring the film to a climax. With the criminal element getting to him first, the question becomes what is the proper punishment for such a misfit. The criminals, an unofficial jury of his peers, respond the way ‘the man in the street’ would, that it is better off for society if he were dead. The answer for Lang, is that the people themselves must decide in a court of law what kind of punishment is warranted. The only thing Lang does with his objective camera is try to understand the killer, not sympathize with him. For this stance, he even earned praise from the Nazis through their propaganda minister, Goebbels, who called the film “fantastic, free of phony humanitarian sentiments.”
Inspector Lohmann grills a burglar caught in the office building who won’t say what he was doing there until the inspector tricks him by telling him he will be charged for murdering the watchman. He then tells the police that the underworld was there to get the killer and then tells them where they took him to trial.
The film is expeditious in its stark treatment of the innocuous Lorre, who does not stand out from the crowd. He is physically a small and fragile man, who defends himself to his fellow jurors by basically borrowing Jesus’ words: “Who is without sin to cast aspersions on another.” As he cries out that he can’t help himself, the criminals look at him intently. Some are jeering at his pleas, appalled to hear him use the same excuses many of them have used. He finally screams out, getting the pity of a few, “I have no control over my urges. I want to escape from myself, but it is impossible.” Facing a certain lynching, the police come in, supposedly, to get him a trial where he will either be executed or sent away to a mental institution. But, as noted by the mourning mothers of the victims, his punishment can’t bring back their little girls (this version was eliminated from the later showings of the film).
Peter Lorre became a recognized star as a result of this film and deservedly so, even though his speaking part was minimal and came only toward the end of the film. He movingly confesses how evil sits inside him. His image in the film fits a description the public could readily identify from now on as that of a child-killer, of a creepy man and a loner, unable to function in society, who lures children by pretending to be their nice uncle who will buy them candy. Lorre, being Jewish, fled Germany for America in the early thirties, and was typecast for this kind of role his entire Hollywood career as a result of this film.
REVIEWED ON 5/7/2000 GRADE: A+ https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/