1931, directed by Fritz Lang, black and white, 111 minutes

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 bereaved
mother, "we, too, should keep a closer watch over our children." This is
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 marked
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 sentence.

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 of the
capacity for moral choice, he is essentially a beast. As such, in neither
a literal nor a metaphoric sense does he represent a way off the hook for
those who do not protect their children. Blaming evil for murder is as
meaningless and futile as blaming a hurricane for your missing roof.

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 commentary
on the responsibility of the individual family for their own growth and
self-preservation. Thus, the imploring message of the mother at the end
of the film feels less like an advertisement for "Yuppie Parenting 101"
and more like a poster in a drug rehab clinic screaming, "if you don't
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 Maltese Falcon.

Paul Falkenberg, Adolph Jansen and Karl Vash also worked on the script.

M is ranked number 41 in the top 250 films of all times by the voters at the International Movie Database and 107th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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Erich G. Anderer was born in Tokyo and raised in New York City.

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