Fritz Lang, 1931
Starring: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Gründgens
“I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me! The fire, the voices, the torment!”
Children in Berlin begin falling prey to a child murderer and the community is in a state of panic. Parents anxiously watch their children and police roam the streets in increasing numbers. Hans Beckert, revealed to the audience to be the killer, kills another child and sends a letter to the media about his crimes. The police try desperately to find clues about him, led by Inspector Karl Lohmann. They begin searching psychiatric hospitals and start raiding areas frequented by Berlin’s criminal underworld. Frustrated by this, the city’s leading criminals plan to catch Beckert using the city’s many beggars and transients to assist them. Though the police successfully find Beckert’s apartment in a boarding house, he is out hunting down another child. He is spotted with a young girl and chased into an abandoned building. He is forced to face a large number of criminals, working class citizens, and the families of his victims so that they can try and sentence him for his crimes. Before they can execute him, the police arrive and arrest him, and he awaits his sentencing in a German court.
Fritz Lang’s M kicks off my series of non-Universal classic horror of the ‘30s and ‘40s. While M is not strictly horror and doesn’t fit in with many of the other films on this list, which are mostly American, it is one of the most important films of the ‘30s and influenced many future crime and horror films. Though this is essentially a crime drama/suspense thriller, it is also a film about a serial killer and probes some of the more horrifying depths of the human mind. M was one of the first “horror” films to examine the monster as fundamentally human: dangerous and destructive, yet also flawed, broken, and sympathetic.
Peter Lorre, in his first starring role, gives an incredibly compelling, sympathetic performance as Beckert. He is at once pathetic, sick, mad, manipulative, and desperate. Though he doesn’t actually appear on screen very much, the film is seeped with his presence. We see him through frames, windows, and in mirror reflections, symbolic of his fragmented psyche and growing madness. Beckert also frequently whistles “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt (it was actually Lang whistling). This device is known as a leitmotif and is common in opera. Lang was the first to use it in cinema, but it has since become wildly popular. He does a number of fascinating things with sound in the film, particularly moments of agonizing silence where other directors from the period were filling up their films with dialogue, thanks to the advent of sound cinema. Considering that this is his first sound film, the achievement is somewhat staggering.
Though there is certainly a lot to choose from (such as Metropolis, Dr. Mabuse, Scarlet Street, etc.), Lang considered this his best work. This is no doubt due in some part to Fritz Arno Wagner, who contributed the amazing cinematography. Grimy, prison-like, and claustrophobic, the film is beautifully shot and nearly every scene has some moment of wonder. It is definitely worth watching the film several times, at least once for the story and Lang’s complex themes, once for the cinematographic achievements, and once for Lang’s original and imaginative use of sound.
Written by Lang and his second wife Thea von Harbou, he did extensive research for this film and met a number of child murderers, including the infamous Peter Kürten, known as the Vampire of Düsseldorf. Lang denied that the film was specifically based on Kürten and cited the many other serial killers active in Weimar and pre-Weimar Germany including Fritz Haarmann. (Ulli Lommel and Kurt Raab, collaborators of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, later made a film about Haarmann, The Tenderness of the Wolves (1973).) With a flavor of neorealism, Lang also allegedly used real criminal as extras.
On the surface, this is a film about a community seeking vigilante justice against a child killer. But on closer reflection, the justice is selfish and corrupt. The criminals want Beckert off the street for the simple reason that they want the police off their backs. The police, for their part, have made little headway and throughout the film become indistinguishable from the criminals. Lang tellingly shows both groups making deals in dark, grimy rooms choked with cigar smoke. This blatant display of corruption made the film very unpopular with the Nazis, who were on the rise in 1931, though not yet fully in power. Lang’s themes in M and a Jewish ancestor made him unpopular with the Nazis, though Reich Minster of Propaganda Josef Goebbels recognized his talent enough to offer him the position of head filmmaker. Soon after he declined, he also fled from Germany and was given a lifelong exile.
M, like Michael Haneke’s much later The White Ribbon (2009), shows, in a certain sense, how fascism becomes possible with the gradual, yet terrifying development of mob mentality. Weimar Germany was known for its poverty, corruption, and social decadence. Lang’s film is a scathing indictment of the culture he was soon to flee from and a country that was on the verge of dramatic, unthinkable change. The men portrayed throughout the film are not likable, fleshed out characters, they are grotesque cut outs, as are many of the settings - seedy bars, decaying buildings, and poorly lit rooms full of cigar smoke and low lighting.
Lang makes excellent use of conveying a thing by showing its absence. We never see the murders or corpses of any of the children, but his method of indicating little Elsie’s death is incredibly effective. He shows us a series of scenes that Elsie should be in, but is not: a dinner table full of food with no one sitting in the chairs, an empty room with hanging laundry, Elsie’s ball bouncing down the street on its own, and, worst of all, the person-shaped balloon Beckert bought her is alone, strangled in some wires before it blows out of the frame.
M comes highly recommended and is known as one of the greatest films of the 20th century for many reasons. As I said, this is not strictly a horror film and is more of a complex, moral drama with thriller, crime, and horror elements. Though it is breathtaking and compelling, modern viewers may find it a little slow. My only complains is that though the chase scene is beautiful, it does feel a little overly long as the society of criminals drive Beckert deep into the bowels of a warehouse and the police desperately try to figure out why they are raiding that particular building.
Criterion has released excellent DVD and Blu-ray editions of M, the latter of which is what I’m reviewing. The Criterion edition is restored in high definition with a slew of special features: audio commentary from a number of writers and film scholars, the English language version of the film, a 50 minute film about Fritz Lang, a short film directed by Claude Chabrol that was inspired by M, interviews, a documentary, and more. I highly recommend picking up this restored edition, though anyway you can see the film, it is well worth it.