Genre: Thriller | Crime
Director: Fritz Lang
Stars: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut
“Just you wait, it won’t be long,
The man in black will soon be here.
With his cleaver’s blade so true,
He’ll make mincemeat out of you!”
A serial killer is on the loose in Berlin. His crimes, so unfathomably heinous, have become the talk (and paranoia) of the town. Even his targeted prey, the city’s children, play a macabre elimination game, chanting a chilling limerick and pretending to identify potential victims. Apparently this is before parents taught their children about “Stranger Danger”.
Under the burden of an outraged public-at-large, city officials urge the police to make a quick arrest. But with no definitive suspects to speak of, Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) instructs his men to focus their investigation on the city’s known criminals. Their frequent raids begin to put a damper on illicit business, prompting the crime bosses to agree that the only way to return to their shady ways is for the killer to be caught. The manhunt is on as both the police and the city’s criminal element try to trap a child-killer.
Even the most casual of cinephiles are familiar with Fritz Lang’s epic film Metropolis. But it seems few have ever seen M, the film that even Lang himself considers to be his finest work.
At the time Lange was doing research for the film, there were several serial killers who gained notoriety in Germany, most notably Fritz Haarmann, Carl Grossmann, Peter Kürten, and Karl Denke. Lang spent eight days at a mental institution and interviewed several actual child murderers, including Peter Kürten, who most believe was the inspiration for the film’s central character.
Occasionally while watching this film I had to keep reminding myself that it was made in 1931. Lang uses techniques rarely seen at a time when filmmaking was still in its infancy. Lang implements striking camera angles, long hand-held shots over tables and across rooms, and clever camera pans to seamlessly transition from one scene to another. In one shot, Lang has his camera actually move through a window, effectively evolving the audience from mere voyeur, to participant, making our interest in the killer’s capture seem more urgent.
Aside from Lang’s brilliant direction, the other highlight of the film is Peter Lorre’s (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon) performance as our serial killer at large. At one point Lorre’s character is forced to plead for his life in a mock trial of sorts. He tries desperately to explain how he has no control over his murderous urges and feels an overwhelming compulsion to commit these unspeakable acts. Lorre’s delivery is so convincing that you almost commiserate his suffering a sick mind, and are forced to consider whether or not someone can be held responsible for actions they can’t control. I have seen both the German and French versions of Lorre’s performance of this scene, and his original German presentation is, by far, superior.
M is a film of cinematic brilliance in technique, in sound, in beauty, and in performance. This is a film that should be viewed not only for entertainment, but for its historical contribution and significance to the film industry as a whole.