M (1931) B/W 118m dir: Fritz Lang
w/Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut, Otto Wernicke, Theodor Loos, Gustaf Grundgens, Friedrich Gnab, Fritz Odemar, Paul Kemp, Theo Lingen, Rudolf Blumner, Georg John, Franz Stein, Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur, Gerhard Bienert, Karl Platen, Rosa Valetti, Hertha von Walther, Lucie Rhoden
Suspenseful psychological crime-drama about a pitiable, disturbed child murderer in Berlin. The film offers an intriguing delineation of the painstaking methods employed by the police and the underworld, both out to trap the killer.
From Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Films: "The story was based on a news story about a real murderer in Dusseldorf. It was to have been called Morder unter uns (Murderer Among Us) but this title was abandoned when a Nazi thought it might dishonor Germany. The film, produced almost entirely in a studio, has no music but a very expressive sound track. Peter Lorre (who was a stage actor trained by Bertolt Brecht) became world famous for his portrayal of the murderer, an outwardly gentle man who is trapped by his mental sickness and afraid to discover himself. He is characterized best by his whistling of the theme from Grieg's Peer Gynt whenever his desires overwhelm him, but otherwise he hardly says a word until his final despairing cry of protest at the end, 'I can't help it.'
"The stylized realism of the sets, the sense of destiny overshadowing the characters, the use of symbols (a balloon offered to one of the victims, the glinting blade of a pocket knife, the sexuality of some of the ads) owe more to Kammerspiel than to expressionism.
"'A Town Hunts a Murderer' was one provisional title for the film, an appropriate title since the town is one of the main characters in the drama. M is a film in which buildings play a major role, especially in the best sequence, where the thief drives the murderer into a deserted building, and traps him as though he were locked in a vault. The climax, where the thief 'squeals' to the police, seems to have been influenced by Brecht and Threepenny Opera .... The band of beggars and thieves in the film included some real criminals. M also offers a portrait of the profound troubles that gripped Germany in the years immediately before Hitler came to power."
From the Criterion website (www.criterion.com), "The Mark of M" by Stanley Kauffmann:
"It’s hard to believe that M was made in 1931. If we allow for the fact that it’s in black and white, it is more engaging to the eye, more incisive in its irony, more firm in its grasp of social complications than most of the films that come along today.
"Take the very first shot. Children are playing in the courtyard of a Berlin tenement. We see them from high above; thus we hover over them. They sing, as children often do in innocent games, of chopping and killing. Our vantage point and their song prepare us for the tone of the whole film.
"Fritz Lang had been directing in Berlin since 1919, and by 1931 he had made more than a dozen films. M was his first sound film, but no one could know that from the film itself. His use of that new instrument, the soundtrack, leaps at once past mere verisimilitude to evocation. Note the shot of the empty loft while we hear a mother call her missing child. Note --- an acutely innovative device possible only with sound --- that we hear the central character before we see him.
"The screenplay, by Thea von Harbou, then Lang’s wife, deals with a serial killer of children terrorizing Berlin. But this is not a mystery story: we know virtually from the beginning who the criminal is. We see him writing to the press, begging to be caught. The suspense is in the effect of this murderer and his murders on the structure of a large city --- how two kinds of order are galvanized by the murderer’s disorder.
"The first order is the usual legal apparatus, government and police. All officialdom is pursuing the killer. But its very efforts evoke another group that wants the killer caught: the criminals, the nonviolent criminals. Police are so thick in the streets, police raids are so frequent, that the pickpockets and safecrackers are having a hard time making a living. The murderer must be caught so that the police will quiet down and the 'good' criminals can practice their professions. And to help them, to act as their spies and lookouts, the good criminals engage the guild of beggars, who throng the streets.
"Lang plays these two strata of the city, upper and lower, against each other in almost musical counterpoint, and he drily makes the most of their similarities. But though it’s the underworld that catches the killer, the police would have soon caught him anyway. Lang isn’t interested in a facile lampooning of the police as numbskulls; his satirical eye focuses on the kinship between the two strata.
"The relation of M to Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera --- the analogous site in the underworld, the guild of beggars --- has been much discussed. No doubt Lang and Harbou knew the Brecht work, but they had a very different view of the subject. Still, another link with Brecht exists through Peter Lorre, who plays the murderer. Lorre (who later became a big American star) had risen to prominence in Berlin through Brecht’s theater work, and at the very same time that M was being shot, he was preparing for a Brecht play. It seems quite possible that Brecht, an exceptional director of actors, contributed privately to Lorre’s basic concept of the murderer as a scurrying, furry little animal, and to the wretch’s outburst when he is brought before the court of criminals.
"The letter M with which he is tagged --- for Morder, German for 'murderer' --- guarantees that, under the wit and satire, a dark current flows. When the film first appeared in the United States in 1933, critic William Troy wrote: 'The modern psychopath, through Peter Lorre’s acting, attains to the dignity of the tragic hero: the fates are now within the protagonist, instead of assailing him from without.' And the ancient Greek sense of fate is heightened by the blind balloon seller. Like Tiresias in Oedipus Rex, the blind man is the one who sees further than others, who fixes the guilt of the offender."