1 Hr., 49 Mins.
M October 29, 2020
(1931), Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking horror movie about a hunt for a serial killer, isn’t very narratively exciting. It adheres to a rigid, quasi-procedural-style structure; at almost two hours, it’s too long to keep its quickly established tension taut. At its most expositional, it has a hard time engaging. But M is also so visually and aurally ingenious that what doesn’t work in it isn’t so
bothersome. And, at its climax, it presents us with an additional, provocative psychological dimension that has an effect of nearly improving everything coming before it. Without an attentive filmmaker like Lang at its helm, M might have been a rote crime thriller. But he’s made something that continues to feel new, in large part because movies of its pulpy ilk are so seldom made with this same sense of aesthetic purpose, and also because you can feel Lang’s timely societal concerns, intentionally or not, seeping into the movie’s frames.
M is set in Berlin, and begins in the middle of a serial killer’s spree. The murderer has been targeting children; little is known about him aside from that he is the type to send threatening missives to the local paper, eagerly exclaiming that he’s going to kill again, and that when he’s stalking his victims before attacking he likes to whistle Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” (This was one of the first notable uses of an aural leitmotif in a film, with sound being only a recent development in the movies; it’s a precursor to the duh-duhs of 1975’s Jaws.)
M opens in an apartment courtyard where a group of kids is eerily playing a cutesy eny, meeny, miny, moe-style elimination game. Hours after they’re scolded by a neighbor a few floors up, another child is killed — a girl named Elsie who lives in the same building. Mercifully we don’t see her murder on camera; though, wickedly, Lang follows the balloon bought for her by the killer as a seduction tool after it slips her grasp and then thumps into some power lines. At one point, the camera rests on the dinner her mother has prepared for her that will go cold and uneaten.
The search had been on before Elsie’s death. Before she’s selected by the murderer’s cruel lottery, we get glimpses of emphatic posters on the Berlin streets entreating parents to be more attentive. But the incident strikes a new chord of fear in the community. The frantic (and incompetent) police are on such high alert that the force is, more than usual, raiding the preferred meeting spots of the city’s criminal underworld figures in an attempt to find their person. A large portion of that criminal faction is in turn so fed up that, in concurrence to the law, it begins its own hunt for the murderer. So many interruptions are bad for everyday business.
Lang wrote the screenplay for M with then-wife Thea von Harbou; they don’t hide the murderer's identity. It’s not, in a familiar maneuver, rendered a plot twist. The killer is a stout, mouth-breathing everyman named Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre, in his film debut). We hear him not utter a word until the film’s climax, but Lorre’s silent presence is still plenty creepy — he’s almost spectral as he putters around in his oversized clothes. (The movie famously led the freakily effective Lorre to be typecast as rather puckish bad guys for pretty much the rest of his career; at the time of the film’s shooting, he was acting, to good notices, in a stage comedy show.)
Most of the movie’s running time encompasses flips back and forth between the lawful and criminal pursuits of Beckert. M is most absorbing when Lorre is in a scene (which isn’t so often), like during one sequence where he’s walking the streets with his latest victim and is noticed by community members who think that this is their man, or in another one where he is pursued by one of the criminal subgroups through a murkily-lit, sinuous factory building. It’s not so much the separate investigations that enrapture — if we are enraptured, it's probably stemming from Lorre’s performance, and wanting to psychologically understand his character even a little. The last act of the movie features a monologue from Beckert delivered by Lorre with such emotional turbulence and conviction that it functions as a sort of explosion. It's the best thing about the movie.
a production of Faust while held in a prison camp.) The police and the criminal cabal in M are both portrayed with much contempt; Lang makes it evident that their concerns about the murderer have less to do with a genuine worry about the safety of children and more so how the murderer is interrupting their getting ahead. The law is anxious about how its reputation is being sullied; the bigwigs of Berlin’s criminal milieu only decide to launch an investigation because their own operations are being thwarted by the constant raids.
Most community members in M here really are perturbed by the murderous horror ravaging the area. But they are also so aggressive — fast to wish for death for anyone they believe responsible — that it also seems as though they want a someone, and are glad to have found a someone, on whom they can sate their appetites for violence generally. Use as a scapegoat to unleash frustrations about everything they think is societally wrong. We often catch glimpses of Beckert looking at himself in mirrors, making funny faces; the frames turn a finger-point into a chassis. When Beckert climatically points out that the criminals who want him dead can control the evil they inflict but choose not to, whereas he cannot help himself, you can't help but think of a certain party gaining prominence.
Lang has said he made M with mostly uncomplicated intentions — that he simply wanted to dissuade parental neglect. But, in hindsight, the movie is clear creative evidence of a man disillusioned. (He’d been a German citizen since 1922.) Lang would emigrate to Paris in 1933, after Joseph Goebbels banned his The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), whose title villain was purposely written to resemble Adolf Hitler. Then Lang ventured to the U.S., where he would make some of his most celebrated movies — many of which, including The Woman in the Window (1944) and The Big Heat (1953), are now hailed as foundational films noir. The majority of his filmography spotlit characters who doled out or were entwined with the worst things about society — violence, crime, greed, deceit. M is no exception. It might be the most pessimistic, moonless example. A
hat and Lang’s treatment, which suggests that the cruel world being portrayed will soon enough be engulfed by shadow. Many critics have noted that M in many ways feels redolent of Lang’s mindset at the time he made the movie: scornful of Germany and German society, which was becoming increasingly swamped by Nazism. (Harbou herself soon became very loyal to the regime; an artist at heart, she would later direct