Directed by Fritz Lang
M was German director Fritz Lang’s first film with sound. He and his wife Thea von Harbou researched German serial killers, particularly the crimes of Peter Kürten, called the “Vampire of Düsseldorf”, to get inspiration for the movie. The film was Lang’s favorite of his own work.
A child murderer terrorizes Berlin, throwing the city into a panic. Citizens turn on each other as paranoia sets in, and the police are at a loss as the sadistic killer taunts them in the newspaper. They decide to use a network of homeless men to watch the streets and call in favors with local crime bosses as a last ditch effort, but can they catch the killer in time to save more children?
At the time of its release, M was extremely controversial. Voted by Premiere as one of “The 25 Most Dangerous Movies”, it was also banned by the Nazis when Hitler came to power. It turned out to be very influential on modern movie making as well; Lang was one of the first filmmakers to use voice over in a narrative film and to use a “leitmotif”, a recurring melody associated with a specific character, a device usually used in operas. In M, the killer whistles “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. Lang was extremely specific about his use of sound and silence, intentionally filming a large section of the movie without sound to enhance the creepy mood. He was also particular about not showing violence on screen, instead suggesting tragedy by showing an empty place at the dinner table, a discarded doll, etc. Likewise, his murderer is not seen on screen until late in the film. Lorre often shows up in a shadowed profile, the audience clued into his presence by his whistling. In one nearly perfect shot, his shadow overlaps a warning poster about the murderer as his next victim bounces a ball against it.
Lorre, previously a comedic actor, was a surprising casting choice for Lang. He does an excellent job as the grotesque Hans Beckert, but like many character actors, ended up being typecast by the role. Although he was grateful for the success following the film’s release, he hated being linked to the role of a child murderer. It’s not hard to tell that M was made by a silent film director; it often has the feel of a newsreel rather than a narrative film. The potential is obviously there, however, and Lang’s influence is clear on suspense directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Laughton, and Orson Welles.
Fright Rating: 1 gasp out of 5
Lang is a phenomenal director and M is a classic thriller. If you’re a Hitchcock/suspense fan, it’s a must watch. Because it fell into public domain several years ago, it’s very easy to find!