Fritz Lang’s first sound film and his penultimate German movie, M is loosely based on a number of serial killers in 1920s Germany. The people of Berlin are in a state of mob like panic as an unknown man is killing little girls in the city. Everyone is a suspect and the police are getting nowhere despite thousands of (conflicting) eye witness testimonies. With unwanted attention falling on the ‘innocent’ criminal fraternity, local crime bosses take it upon themselves to capture the killer and use the large homeless and beggar community as their spies, watching little girls in the hope of discovering the man behind the attacks.
M is often, and rightly, considered as one of the first masterpieces of the sound era. Not only is it a terrific, tense and surprisingly violent film but its use of sound is up there with the best of the period. Realising that sound could be used for more than mere dialogue Lang employs it as part of the plot and has sound off screen along with long periods of silence interrupted by loud noises which together with a deep and complex score and haunting whistle help to make M one of the best of the early talkies. The film also features Lang’s famed use of light and shadow and a fantastic central performance from Peter Lorre.
I wasn’t immediately won over by M but it grew on me steadily as I became more enamoured with the story until the closing scenes during which I barely blinked. The film was produced in Germany and shot in the German language but an English version was also produced at the same time as was often the case during the early sound period. I opted for the original version but the subtitles are more than good enough. Watching the German version also helps with the problem of poor sound recording but I have to say that M is one of the better films I’ve heard from the period. The plot builds and builds becoming ever tenser until its climatic scenes of a Kangaroo Court. It is during this final scene in which Peter Lorre is given his chance to shine and gives the most amazing monologue. This along with a short chase earlier on is the highlight of the film.
One of the great things about the plot is that it is the criminals who become the police and in a way, take care of their own. Sensing that the blame will eventually land on themselves, the criminal powers in the city seek out the murderer so that they can get on with their petty thieving and prostitution. They are often one step ahead of the police due to their large network of ears to the ground and beggar spies. While watching M it is difficult not to think of its period setting. It was produced in 1931, just months before the Nazis took control of the Reichstag and two years before Hitler’s Machtergreifung. With that in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but pick up comparisons to the coming regime such as the mob crowds picking on innocent people who they believed to be the murderer and even the long leather coat worn by the criminal leader Der Schränker (Gustaf Grundgens). Grundgens incidentally went on to have a very successful acting career under the Nazi regime after many of his contemporaries fled West.
The main theme of the film according to Lang is that parents should watch out for their children. It’s a simple idea but well visualised here. The closing shot even features a tearful mother almost speaking into camera with those exact words. Although I doubt there is any anti Nazi sentiment in the film, it could be interpreted as not ‘keep an eye on your children’ but rather ‘watch out for the future’. The Nazi’s even interviewed Lang about the film before production as they were worried that the murderer was based on them but were seemingly happy that it wasn’t. Even if there is no political agenda to the film, with history on our side it is easy to pick them out even if they were never intended.
The film’s violence is mostly implied or hidden but it smothers the film. It’s like the monster under your bed, you never see it but you know it’s there. If anything keeping the violence off-screen allows the audience to make up their mind as to what is happening to the girls and this in a way makes it more horrific than anything that could be shown at the time. It is heavily implied that the violence is of a sexual nature and this along with the swearing makes it unlike anything Hollywood was making at the time or would do for another forty years. There is a truthfulness to the film which its Hollywood contemporaries lack. Just yesterday I watched the classic gangster picture The Public Enemy from the same year and M is much more realistic in its depiction of real working class people and criminals in addition to implying more violence. Making something like M in conservative America just wouldn’t have been possible in 1931.
M is one of the best films I’ve seen from the early sound period and its reputation is justified. Despite a shaky opening it goes from strength to strength building to a crescendo which is unmatched in passion and apprehension. Peter Lorre is terrific and Fritz Lang proves that despite being new to sound he had lost nothing which had made him one of the most creative and popular Directors of the silent era.
- The Film was remade in Hollywood in 1951. It was poorly received by audiences and critics.
- The tune the murderer whistles is In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg.
- Peter Lorre was originally a comic actor but the success of M lead him to be type cast as the villain in both Germany and later the United States.