M is a 1931 German drama-thriller film directed by Fritz Lang (Metropolis, The Testament of Doctor Mabuse) and starring Peter Lorre (The Beast with Five Fingers; The Raven; Tales of Terror). It was written by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou and was the director’s first sound film. The plot shows one of cinema’s first serial killer hunts and was a shift in horror from monsters to real-life horrors.
In early 1930’s Berlin, despite a serial killer being on the loose, families are trying to carry on with their lives as normal. We see a six-year-old girl named Elsie Beckmann playing with a ball alone on a street having left her friends. She is approached by a relatively nondescript man, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), whistling as he walks, who buys her a balloon from a blind peddler. This innocent act is soon to be revealed as something far more sinister as, although the crime goes unseen, her empty place at the dinner table and abandoned toys suggest at the horror which has been committed.
Beckert, in common with several real-life murderers, taunts the Berliners by boasting details of his crimes, which are printed in the local newspapers. The police, with no leads to go on, comb over every possible detail looking for clues but despite using the very latest techniques, including fingerprint analysis, they struggle to make a breakthrough.
Under the leadership of Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke; The Testament of Doctor Mabuse), his forces forensically check every detail they have and scour their archives for potential suspects, whilst the troops on the ground raid countless criminal gangs in a fruitless attempt to catch the killer.
The criminal fraternity is equally appalled at the crimes but, at the same time, object to their nefarious activities being regularly interrupted. As such, they gather themselves together and throw allegiances out of the window to seek out the serial killer themselves, led by the notorious, Der Schränker (“The Safecracker”, played by Gustaf Gründgens; Faust). Despite their reputations, they ensure the safety of the city’s youth by employing the many beggars to keep watch on every street corner.
The police finally make a breakthrough and lie in wait at his rented accommodation. Meanwhile, the unaware killer stalks another young victim but is thwarted by an attentive mother. His distinctive whistle is recognised by the blind beggar we met earlier, who quickly informs members of the underworld as to his fears.
Beckert is trailed by the informant, who ensures the suspect doesn’t get lost in the crowd by pretending to bump into him, giving him the opportunity to transfer a large letter “M” from his palm to the back of his coat.
Initially unaware, the symbol alerts other members of the criminal vigilantes who begin to appear en masse. Realising he is being trailed, Beckert flees into a large office building but it isn’t long before he is trapped and ‘arrested’, not by the police but by the criminals.
A court is hastily assembled in an abandoned distillery, from judge (a murderer himself) to defence. It isn’t long before Beckert is found guilty, his pleas that he is unable to control his urges falling on deaf ears.
It now becomes a game of morals and justice as a three-way tug-of-war decides whether Beckert can make his pleas heard by the courts of the land rather than the trial by The People.
Fritz Lang, known for his close attention to detail, soaked up numerous accounts of real-life serial killers (comparisons are regularly drawn with Peter Kürten, the so-called \Vampire of Düsseldorf’) to ensure his depiction was not only chilling but unnervingly believable. His intention was not only to cast some light on what would motivate a child-killer to commit such heinous acts but also to examine the roles of parents, society and the perpetual question as to the validity of capital punishment.
Contrarily, though M is Lang’s first film utilising sound, the film is almost entirely devoid of a soundtrack as such, the only ‘music’ of any real significance being the tune whistled by the killer, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. This is one of the very earliest uses of a musical device known as a ‘leitmotif’ – a short melody which denotes a particular character or action. In this instance, any time we here the piece, even if Beckert isn’t on-screen, we know he is nearby.
The film regularly omits diegetic street sound, putting even more focus on the theme of sight and sound and how closely we actually pay attention to what is going on around us. In actual fact, Lorre couldn’t whistle and the musical theme comes from the lips of Lang’s wife.
Originally titled, Mörder unter uns (“Murderer Among Us”) the film immediately courted controversy, even before release, raising the hackles of both German studios and the Nazi Party. Other early titles for the film included Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (A City searches for a Murderer) and Dein Mörder sieht Dich An (Your Killer Looks At You).
Interestingly, despite the role of the murderer being so pivotal to the film, the strength and motivations of many of the characters shine through, achieving the aims of the director for the film to be a social commentary on all members of society, not just the most obvious.
This was Lorre’s first major role and one he was essentially able to play twice, both in his native tongue and in English when the film was re-shot. Despite his previous roles largely being in comedy, M led to Lorre being cast as a villain for many years after.
In fact, none of the crimes are ever shown on-screen, though rather like many of the most important works of cinema, you would swear you see more than is actually presented. Beckert’s internal turmoil may be very real to him but we are left with no doubt as to his crimes or the threat he poses.
It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the existence of foreign language versions of the film (English and French) were uncovered; the sets and plot the same but the language and even several scenes, quite different. The various versions run to anything from 105 minutes to 117. Even then, a missing scene remains undiscovered, approximately seven extra minutes, further examining the bizarre practice of murderers almost giving themselves up in an attempt to publicly proclaim their crimes and the inefficiencies of the police force.
M remains a deeply unsettling and challenging film and which, alas, deals with themes and events which are still very present with us today. It regularly appears in the loftier areas of critics’ favourite films, one of the few to transcend language to feature in both general and world lists.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA