UFA / Germany
Peter Lorre - Hans Beckert
Ellen Widmann - Madame Beckmann
Otto Wernicke - Inspector Lohmann
Theodor Loos - Inspector Groeber
Gustaf Gründgens - Schränker
Fritz Lang - Director
Seymour Nebenzal - Producer
Thea von Harbou - Script
Fritz Arno Wagner - Cinematography
Emil Hasler - Art Director
It's hard to believe that "M" was made in 1931. If we allow for the fact that it's in black and white, it is more engaging of the eye, more incisive in its irony, more firm in its grasp of social complications than most of the films that come along today.
Take the very first shot. Children are playing in the courtyard of a Berlin tenement. We see them from high above, thus we hover over them. They sing, as children often do in innocent games, of chopping and killing. Our vantage point and their song prepare the whole tone of the film.
Fritz Lang had been directing in Berlin since 1919 and had made more than a dozen films; this was his first sound film. But no one could know that from the film itself. His use of that new instrument, the sound track, leaps at once past mere verism to evocation. Note the way the camera moves through the empty loft while we hear a mother call her missing child. Note--an acutely innovative device possible only with sound--that we hear the central character before we see him.
The screenplay by Thea von Harbou, then Lang's wife, deals with a serial killer of children who is terrorizing Berlin. This is not a mystery story: we know virtually from the beginning who the criminal is. We see him writing to the press begging to be caught. The suspense is in the effect of this murderer and his murders on the structure of a large city--how two kinds of order are galvanized by the murderer's disorder.
The first order is the usual legal apparatus, government and police. All officialdom is pursuing the killer. But its very efforts provoke another group that wants the killer caught; the criminals, the non-violent criminals. Police are so thick in the streets, police raids are so frequent, that the pickpockets and safecrackers are having a hard time making a living. The murderer must be caught so that the police will quiet down and the "good" criminals can practice their professions. And to help them, to act as their spies and lookouts, the "good" criminals engage the guild of beggars who throng the streets.
Lang plays these two strata of the city, upper and lower, against each other in almost musical counterpoint, and he dryly makes the most of their similarities. But, though it's the underworld that catches the killer, the police would soon have caught him anyway. Lang isn't interested in facile lampooning of the police as numskulls; his satirical eye focuses on the kinship in the two strata.
The relationship of "M" to Bertolt Bracht's The Threepenny Opera (1928)--the analogous site in the underworld, the guild of beggars--has been much discussed. No doubt Lang and Harbou knew the Brecht work, but they had a very different view of the subject. Still, another link with Brecht exists through Peter Lorre, who plays the murderer. Lorre (who later became a big American star) had risen to prominence in Berlin through Brecht's theater work, and, at the very time that "M" was being shot, he was preparing for a Brecht play It seems quite possible that Brecht, an exceptional director of actors, contributed privately to Lorre's basic concept of the murderer as a scurring little furry animal and the wretch's outburst when he is brought before the court of criminals.
The letter M with which he is tagged--Mörder, the German for murderer--guarantees that, under the wit and satire, a dark current flows. When the film first appeared in the U.S. in 1933, the critic William Troy wrote: "The modern psychopath, through Peter Lorre's acting, attains to the dignity of the tragic hero: the fates are now within the progatonist, instead of asssailing him from without." And the ancient Greek sense of fate is heightened by the blind balloon-seller. Like Tiresias in Oedipus Rex, it is the blind man who sees further than others, who fixes the guilt of the offender.
A last wry point, however: the murderer whistles a theme from Grieg recurrently, obsessively. Lang wasn't satisfied with the way Lorre whistled it, so he did it himself.
--STANLEY KAUFFMANN, from
the Criterion DVD release of "M".
A selection of "M" related films.
Find "M" on eBay.com
A selection of "M" in books.
History of Horror
THE SILENT ERA
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