Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
M is a German thriller film released in 1931 and was directed and co-written by Fritz Lang. The film is an early example of a police procedural, following the manhunt for a suspected child murderer terrorising the streets of Berlin in the dying days of the Weimar Republic. The film helped to make a star of its leading man Peter Lorre, who appears here alongside Otto Wernicke and Gustaf Gründgens. The film is notable for featuring several then-pioneering innovations, including the use of a musical leitmotif in the form of a character's ominous whistling. The film is also a social commentary on the rise of fascism within Germany at the time, despite being co-written with Lang's wife Thea von Harbou, who herself became a member of the Nazi party. Lang considered the film to be his best. It is still widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential films of all time.
What's It About?
Berlin in the early 1930s, and it is a city living under a shadow. A prolific serial killer targeting children has the entire city on edge as the police have made next to no progress in identifying the killer, who taunts the city with handwritten notes promising further bloodshed. With rewards being offered for any information as children go on about their everyday lives, the citizens of the city are getting increasingly paranoid and frustrated with the police. Almost every member of the law is conducting raids on local businesses and questioning as many people as they can, led by the determined Inspector Lohmann who begins searching records for recently released psychiatric patients.
In fact, there are so many police on the streets that it interferes with the running of various criminal operations. Such is the disruption that a meeting of the city's crime lords is called by Der Schränker (The Safecracker) who argues that they stand a better chance of bringing the killer to justice themselves. Using their network of street beggars to keep an eye on children, they are soon on the trail of the killer - Hans Beckert, a possibly insane man who has already clapped eyes on his next victim...
What's to Like?
Given that this was released just four years after Lang's earlier masterpiece Metropolis, I was expecting something that felt similarly quaint and old-fashioned, but boy, was I wrong. This feels remarkably prescient, in large part because of how influential it remains ninety years after its release. Every cop movie cliche is created here - even the angry police chief or politician exerting their influence on the lead investigator for a speedy resolution.
It also uses fantastic use of both visual and audible technology - ominous use of shadow and lighting competes with the then-unheard use of a leitmotif that not only signifies the arrival of the killer but immediately sets you on edge. The same can even be said of the lack of any real soundtrack, allowing every footstep to be heard and every cry to echo in your ears. Watching it for the first time, I was instantly struck by how many later films I saw reflecting this film from Seven to Zodiac to Dirty Harry. It obviously lacks some of the more brutal violence of its contemporaries - the violence is mostly off-screen while the details of these shocking murders is absent, allowing the viewer's imagination to fill in the blanks. But this is still a tense and gripping film from the very start and not one for younger viewers.
M is rightly remembered for Lorre's astonishing portrayal of Beckert, a clearly disturbed individual apparently tortured by a hidden compulsion to kill. I'm not sure that I buy into the argument that he is insane, despite his extraordinary outburst at the end of the film. But he does come across as genuinely evil, only dropping the mask to reveal how pathetic and unhinged he is towards the end of the film. Lorre is both cold and sinister as Beckert, who becomes increasingly desperate as the noose begins to tighten. I was also impressed with the supporting cast, all of whom will be unfamiliar to most audiences who aren't into early German cinema.
Gründgens, who represents the wider German society at the time, is equally chilling as the very Aryan and calculating Safecracker while Wernicke brings something of a Sherlock Holmes vibe to his Inspector Lohmann, a role that he was so successful in that he returned as the character in Lang's next film The Testament Of Dr Mabuse. And while it's easy to view the film as an early serial killer flick, it's hard not to recognise Lang's revulsion at the rising influence of fascism within Germany at that time. From the ruthlessness of the criminals leading the hunt to the wider depiction of society in general, full of tragic characters and immorality, Lang's vision of Berlin is a stark contrast to the decadence of the era.
Trailer (BFI restored version)
- Peter Lorre couldn't whistle his character's famous "In The Hall of the Mountain King" theme, so the whistling we hear is actually Lang himself, who felt his slightly off-key delivery was perfect for the character.
- Both M and The Testament of Dr Mabuse were banned in 1934 a year after the Nazis had come to power. Despite this, Lang claims to have been invited to a meeting with Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, who not only apologised for the ban but also offered Lang the position of studio head at UFA Studios. Lang claimed that his mother was Jewish (Lang himself was) but Goebbels insisted, forcing Lang to leave Germany and his wife behind when the meeting was over. Lang fled to Paris and later America while von Harbou became a prominent voice in Nazi Germany.
- Coincidentally, Lorre was also Jewish and fled Germany shortly after this film's release. Lorre arrived in Britain for a while, appearing in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 before enjoying a long career in Hollywood, although he would be typecast in villainous roles.
- The film is possibly based on a real-life case. Lang reputedly spent some time in a mental institution for research, talking to serial killer Peter Kürten who was known as "The Vampire of Düsseldorf" in the 1920s. Lang would deny this in an interview in 1963.
What's Not to Like?
Although these aren't issues for me personally, subtitle readers might be put off but they really should persevere with the film. Unlike many films set in non-English settings today, the use of the German language helps maintain the now-period setting in Berlin and even heightens the tension, as though the language makes the story even creepier somehow.
I also would have liked to see more of Lorre's dominant performance which is so superb that it cast a long shadow over the rest of his career. The film seems to spend much of its first half flitting between the overworked police dealing with belligerent citizens and the cabal of criminals plotting to bring down this unwelcome outsider themselves. But then again, perhaps revealing too much of the monster would weaken his aura of malice that surrounds him like a cloak. Not that the film is short on menace as the film positively swims in it from the very first shot, a group of children playing a dark version of 'Eenie Meanie, Miney Mo' when the figure of Death himself stalks the loser.
I honestly never thought I would see a film so far ahead of its time than Metropolis, but M is yet another milestone in cinema history, giving Lang another triumph to hang his hat on. This is a truly wonderful film, one that would still stand alongside similar thrillers today despite its age. It's surprisingly grim and dark, a really gritty drama that makes a mockery of similar films of the time. Gone is the hokey Expressionist performances from the silent era and in its place is a film that magnificently uses both sound and silence to create a genuinely chilling picture.
Should I Watch It?
If you have even a passing interest in history - either in general or in cinema particularly - then you owe it to yourself to watch this first class film from a director at the peak of his powers. Aided by Lorre's incredible performance, the film remains a powerful and tense thriller that relies on filmmaking prowess to move you to the edge of your seat and keep you there. Not only is this one of the best films of all time but you can see how influential it has been for all this time which is as honest an indication of its quality as anything I can say here. Incredible.
Great For: film students, filmmakers, historians, cinema in general
Not So Great For: black-and-white snobs, subtitle strugglers, facists who don't (or can't) read between the lines
What Else Should I Watch?
To think that Lang was responsible for both this and Metropolis is staggering, considering how far ahead of their time they both were. Metropolis did for science fiction what M did for thrillers, introducing a raft of new ideas rarely seen before such as vast urban landscapes and humanoid robots moving among us. One only needs to think of C-3PO from Star Wars and you're reminded of Brigitte Helm's golden appearance as the Maschinenmensch encircled by rings of energy as she awakens like Frankenstein's monster. Lang would go on to enjoy a fruitful career in the US after his emigration although many of his films were never considered to be as great as his earlier work. But he continued to be successful in the film-noir genre with films such as Scarlet Street and The Big Heat.
German cinema has come a long way since the 1930s and continues to produce some of the best examples of what Hollywood calls 'world cinema'. Downfall is a powerful depiction of Hitler's final days during the Battle of Berlin in 1945 and had an acclaimed performance from Bruno Ganz, even securing the film a nomination at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. One film that did win that award was The Lives Of Others in 2006, an astonishing debut film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck about Stasi agents monitoring the people of East Berlin in the Eighties. And one of my personal favourite German films, Run Lola Run, marked the international breakthrough for director Tom Tykwer who continues to enjoy a successful career in Hollywood.
Inspector Karl Lohmann
Der Schränker (Safecracker)
Franz, the burglar
Falschspieler (The Cheater)
Taschendieb (The Pickpocket)
Bauernfänger (The Con Man)
Thea von Harbou & Fritz Lang
Release Date (UK)
22nd June, 1932
PG (1992 re-rating)
Crime, Mystery, Thriller
© 2021 Benjamin Cox