By Erich G. Anderer
A masterful and chilling blend of expressionist
and realist styles, M is a film of stark and bleak visual
beauty about a serial murderer of children.
It was the first sound film to be directed
by Fritz Lang (1890-1976), who had achieved great fame as the
director of Metropolis in 1926. While M is a fine
movie for its cinematography, its editing and acting, it is perhaps
most memorable for its use of sound, and its absence, to manipulate
emotions. Lang used it sparingly and its silent sections are among
the most dramatic. The purposeful sparseness of sound in the film
lulls the viewer into a tranquility that is at various points
abruptly disturbed by whistles, bells, and screams.
It was the director's favorite work and in
its genre of macabre suspense it is without peer.
In his role-of-a-lifetime, Peter Lorre, whose
real name was Ladislav Löwenstein, gives a magnificent and
eerily sympathetic portrayal as the murderer, Hans Beckert. The
part could be well played by many actors, but Lorre is faultless
and fascinating, the very antithesis of a dashing villain who
terrifies an entire city. He is the very opposite of Anthony Hopkins's
arrogant and imperious Hannibal Lechter in The Silence of The
Lambs, the popular serial killer movie that would follow some
six decades later.
The early 1930's, of course, are a time absorbed
in decadence as the Depression sinks in and the purification rites
of Nazi Germany were beginning to take shape. The movie was originally
titled "Murderer Among Us" and some commentators have
suggested that the Nazis wanted the title changed. "M"
stands for "Morder," which is "murderer" in
German, and at one point in the film someone scribbles the letter
in chalk on the back of Lorre's coat.
Lang, as well as Lorre, would leave Germany
in 1933 after he made The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. A long
article on M (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/1997/09/05/DD1791.DTL)by
Edward Guttmann, a critic with the San Francisco Chronicle, suggests
that the Nazis thought Lang was mounting a critique of them, adding
that he "was left alone to make the film but, fearing that
his mother's Jewishness would be discovered, he fled Germany in
1933, landing first in Paris and then in Hollywood." A Dec.
8, 1997 article, which has a fine reproduction of a still from
the movie, in The Austin Chronicle (http://weeklywire.com/filmvault/austin/m/m1.html)
observed that "the whole affair positively oozes the quiet
menace of a time frame in which the well-oiled doors of human
misery have begun to swing wide." Indeed, in his review of
the film (http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/old_movies/m.html)
critic Roger Ebert observes that in the movie "you see a
hatred for the Germany of the early 1930s that is visible and
palpable," adding that "Apart from a few perfunctory
shots of everyday bourgeoisie life (such as the pathetic scene
of the mother waiting for her little girl to return from school),
the entire movie consists of men seen in shadows, in smokefilled
dens, in disgusting dives, in conspiratoiala conferences.
Based in large part on the true story of Peter
Kurten, who was known as the "Monster of Dusseldorf"
where he killed at least 9 people over a 15-year preiod and was
executed the same year as M opened.
The opening scene, depicting a little girl
chanting a typically gruesome nursery rhyme about the "nasty
man in black who will chop you
with his chopper," serves as an adumbration of later occurrences.
A man in a fedora and coat who whistles the "Hall of the
Mountain King" theme from Grieg's Peer Gynt buys her
some candy and a toy balloon. He is first seen as a shadow passing
by a poster on a kiosk of a reward for his capture. The girl is
bouncing a ball against the kiosk. The next scene shows the girl's
mother preparing her lunch and wondering where she is. The next
scene shows the girl's ball on the street and the balloon caught
on some wires.
The cautionary tone of the child's rhyme lurks
in the unfolding narrative
until it resurfaces in the final line of the film, spoken by a
mother, "we, too, should keep a closer watch over our children."
the central theme of the work.
For while the police are getting fed up with
the uncooperative citizens, and the criminal element, whose operations
are being disrupted by the ongoing investigation, are cursing
the foibles of the bungling police department, everybody is, in
essence, passing on his or her own fundamental responsibility:
to care for your young. It is, therefore, a kind of collective
parental guilt that foments the seething, witchhunt-like atmosphere
that engulfs the city as it seeks out its scapegoat.
Lang creates this mood adeptly through a series
of montage sequences, interior shots of smoke-filled rooms, and
Expressionistic shots of lamp-lit foggy streets and caged office
buildings. Fritz Arno Wagner, who worked on Nosferatu,
was the cinematographer of M, which has many brilliant
overhead shots of children playing.
Lorre's pathetic, bug-eyed character manages
to blend in with the
increasingly tense inhabitants of the city until he is literally
with an "M" for "Morder" ("murderer").
He is eventually identified, however, by a blind street vendor
who recognizes his distinctive whistle. (An excellent article
by Eddie Cockrell on the movie at http://www.nitrateonline.com/rm.html
reports that "Lang did the whistle himself, as Lorre never
learned how. It also describes Lorre's character in the movie
as a "porcine pedophile.") Like the mark of Hester Prynne
in "The Scarlet Letter," or, perhaps more accurately,
the mark of Cain, the "M" identifies the scapegoated
sinner for all to see, effectively branding him for violent retribution.
It is the criminal element that catches up with him first, and
they proceed to put the murderer on a Pol Pot style mock trial
complete with a jury of murderous hypocrites and a pre-determined
The murderer blurts out that he is pursued
by ghosts and that he cannot help himself or control the "evil
thing inside" him - "The fire, the voices, the torment!...Who
knows what it's like to be me?"
What comes out at the trial, however, and what
is of importance
to the ultimate message of the film, is that this is a man devoid
capacity for moral choice, he is essentially a beast. As such,
a literal nor a metaphoric sense does he represent a way off the
those who do not protect their children. Blaming evil for murder
meaningless and futile as blaming a hurricane for your missing
Lang, and Thea von Harbou, his co-screenwriter
and wife, who would became a Nazi Party member according to critic
Ebert, have brilliantly
twisted a seemingly clear-cut murder and suspense story into a
on the responsibility of the individual family for their own growth
self-preservation. Thus, the imploring message of the mother at
of the film feels less like an advertisement for "Yuppie
and more like a poster in a drug rehab clinic screaming, "if
take care of your children, who will?"
Urban hysteria and vigilante fervor are fascinating
subjects well treated in this taut and spare film, but it is the
horror of the deranged murderer that is most fascinating. Lorre's
role does not prompt much sympathy, nor yield to deep analysis,
yet he is riveting and holds up a frightening and unnerving mirror
to viewers of their own morality. Lorre became a major star in
this film and would go on to a long career as a character actor
in many film noir classics such as Casablanca and The
Paul Falkenberg, Adolph Jansen and Karl Vash
also worked on the script.
Erich G. Anderer was born in Tokyo and
raised in New York City.