M – Fritz Lang’s masterpiece

The newly restored Fritz Lang psychological crime thriller M, now making the rounds of UK cinemas, is one of German cinema’s most influential films and the 1931 release broke new ground in combining elements of crime melodrama and factual documentary, and stylistically fusing expressionism and realism.

M is based on the true case of a serial child murderer in Dusseldorf and is reportedly Lang’s own favourite work because of its social commentary and message: at the end a widowed mother says to the audience ‘One has to help watch over the children. All of you!’

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Many critics consider the film Lang’s greatest masterpiece; using a musical theme to signify the murderer was an innovation at the time, a technique borrowed from the opera that is now a filmmaking staple. It could also be argued that M is the first example of a realistic police procedural, yet to a modern audience, accustomed to pace and character development, these ‘documentary’ scenes quickly become tedious. To some, M can even be seen as a premonition of the horrors of Nazi Germany later in the 1930s.

It was not until 2001 that M was finally reassembled in picture and sound to match its original 1931 release, which includes an early example of product placement: a chewing gum advert on the side of a tram (WRIGLEY P.K. Kaugumm). More recent restoration work done by Berlin’s TLEFilms Film recovered 30% of ‘lost’ film and the 2013 version is currently showing in arts cinemas in the UK; it is also available on Blu-ray from Universum Film.

As Hans Beckert, the child murderer, Peter Lorre gives a career-best performance, one that would typecast him in future Hollywood films as a baby-faced villain. Lorre has a wonderfully expressive face, one that can convey sadness, creepiness and menace, often at the same time. In M he is like a rotund, sleepy-eyed schoolboy who has eaten too many sweets, but still gazes longingly through the sweetshop window. When he is threatened or sees a little girl, he is transformed into a pop-eyed Mr Toad.

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In a masterful opening sequence children play in a Berlin courtyard, chanting a ‘bogey-man’ rhyme: ‘The man in black will soon be here … He’ll make mincemeat out of you.’ A cuckoo clock strikes noon. School has finished and a mother in her kitchen begins to worry about her daughter. Cut to a girl on her own, bouncing a ball. She stops to look at a poster advertising a 10,000 marks reward for the capture of a murderer responsible for the disappearance of two missing children.

The shadow of a man’s face and trilby hat falls across the advert. Cut to anxious mother: where is Elsie? The man, whose face we cannot see, buys a novelty balloon from a blind beggar. There is a vertigo-inducing aerial shot from the top of the mother’s apartment staircase. ‘Elsie!’ calls her mother, desperately. Cut to cuckoo clock – 1.15. Cut to empty place at table. Cut to the street: Elsie’s ball rolls into view and stops. Cut to her balloon, snagged on telegraph wires.

The murderer is identified and introduced by the tune he whistles: In the Hall of the Mountain King from Grieg’s Peer Gynt. Months after the first child murder the police investigation has yielded no leads, despite systematic interviews and searches. Berlin’s criminal gangs are fed up with being raided – an outsider’s crime is bad for business. Parallel efforts by police and the mob to find the killer initially come to nothing. Cue multiple scenes of men sitting around debating and smoking.

The police are forensic in their approach; they analyse Beckert’s writing and use psychological profiling to label him ‘severely pathological’. As a result, their inquiry shifts to scrutinise records of patients released from mental asylums.

The mob, meanwhile, hit upon the idea of using beggars on street corners as their spies and get to Beckert first, via that giveaway whistled tune. During his kangaroo court trial in the cellar of an old distillery, Beckert tries to explain the nature of his compulsion: ‘I can’t help it … I really can’t … This fire, this voice, this agony. Except when I’m doing it.’ Then he shrieks ‘Don’t want to! Must! Don’t want to! Must!‘, bringing to mind Gollum’s compulsive mania in The Lord of the Rings. 

The bureaucratic lists of names, the neighbourhood watch surveillance, the meticulous display of weapons, stolen goods and cigar butts in neat ordered piles – all have echoes here of Hitler’s methods. When Beckert is branded with the chalk ‘M’ for ‘murderer,’ it is not such a leap to see the stars of David that German Jews were made to wear a few years later.