M - Eine Stadt sucht einen M?rder

 (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1931) 105 minutes


Director: Fritz Lang
Producer: Seymour Nebenzal
Screenplay: Thea von Harbou
based on an article by Egon Jacobson
Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner
Editor: Paul Falkenberg
Sound: Adolf Janson
Peter Lorre (Franz Beckert - The Murderer)
Ellen Widmann (Frau Beckmann - The Mother)
Inge Landgut (Elsie Beckmann - The Child)
Otto Wernicke (Inspector Karl Lohmann)
Theodor Loos (Inspector Groeber)
Gustaf Grundgens (Schranker - The Safebreaker)
Friedrich Gnass (Franz - The Burglar)

Reviews and notes

M is an inevitable choice, a masterpiece in its own right, and in many respects the grandfather of the genre. Unlike other early pictures, it does not seem quaint on account of primitivism. It is as strong and gripping an entertainment as it was the day it opened, and although it is one of the earliest German sound films, it contains some uses of sound which have yet to be surpassed. M is as visually strong a picture as has ever been made, and its depiction of the night city is exceptional.

The screenplay, written by Fritz Lang's wife, Thea von Harbou, was based on the true story of the famous Duesseldorf child-murderer, Kuerten. His crimes so upset the underworld that it organized an independent attempt to identify him and track him down. This, basically, is the story. M, the first letter of the word "murderer", is chalked on Hans Beckert's (Peter Lorre's) jacket to identify him when he is being shadowed by members of the "Beggars Union."

While law-enforcement officials, who are mercilessly satirized, use modern police methods to identify the psychotic Beckert, the underworld employs its own skills and personnel, and succeeds in catching him first. It tries him before a kangaroo court, sentences him to death, and is about to render punishment, despite pleas that "I can't help myself" (shouted, screamed, and whimpered with all the force at Peter Lorre's command), when the police suddenly arrive and take him away to a fair trial.

There is some sort of message here, typical of Lang at the time, probably a result of his thoughts about Nazism, that "the Law" is the only thing that stands between civilization and anarchy. Thus, the battle between the underworld and the police over the destiny of a murderer, who is himself a split personality, half psychotic, half law-abiding, must be resolved in favor of a merciful court, not the jungle court of the underworld. As in so many films of this genre, the message tends to be simplistic, and comes close to being undercut by the satire. What is important in M is the expression of the story. The visual ideas and formal elements are supreme.

Lang is not a humanist director; he could not be further from Jean Renoir. He is a manipulator, a master puppeteer, and, as a matter of fact, he belongs among the filmmakers who delight in using human beings to make designs. (Busby Berkely had this obsession, and so did Leni Riefenstahl.) M is full of designs, high shots in which people, along with architectural elements, are used to make geometric patterns. Note the high shot of the children, watching the organ grinder; the shot of Lorre in front of the shop window surrounded by the reflection of geometrically displayed knives, surely a portent of evil; and the configuration of underworld characters in the low-ceilinged basement of the deserted distillery. Lang's choice of certain shop windows that contain a rotating spiral and a sort of jumping-jack puppet echo another of his curious concerns: an obsession with human mechanicalism, automatic and compulsive movements, which is taken in his Metropolis to the fringes of madness.

In M the people are puppets, fools, hysterics. The only real exception is Peter Lorre, whose final, heart-rendering cries for pity break through Lang's barrier of misanthropy and make the murderer human. No, Lang is not concerned with people, but with designs, traps, visual geometry, and structural irony.

Lang pushes the idea that the underworld and the law are after the same man as far as it will go, cutting back and forth, making ironic comparisons as the lawmen and the outlaws come up with parallel schemes. As the double trap closes tighter around Peter Lorre, the audience is drawn into the frantic hunt, a passionate pursuit carried out by men who swarm like insects. The camera angles become increasingly portentous, suggesting a constant closing-in, and the atmosphere of the night city becomes more and more nightmarish, more and more claustrophobic. An example of the tensions Lang can generate is the famous bouncing-ball sequence. We hear Mrs Beckmann calling frantically for her lost daughter; then her cries are intercut with shots of Elsie's ball coming to rest and her balloon being caught in telephone wires. The effect is fateful and powerful. We hear the rough nasal whistling of the theme from Grieg's "Peer Gynt" whenever Peter Lorre is hanging around. The effect is ominous and frightening. Such riches, visual and oral, seem less like primitive experiments than contemporary usages. Many of these effects, the use of a child's ball, the use of music, montages of police evidence, and the construction of a trap, turn up in basically the same form, seventeen years later, in Carol Reed's The Third Man.
- William Bayer, The Great Movies.
Reprinted in Cape Town Film Society notes, 12 September 1976.

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