M is a 1931 German drama-thriller film directed by Fritz Lang and starring Peter Lorre. It was written by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou and was the director's first sound film.
Now considered a classic, Lang himself believed it was his finest work.
A group of children are playing an elimination game in the courtyard of an apartment building in Berlin using a chant about a child murderer. A woman sets the table for dinner, waiting for her daughter to come home from school. A wanted poster warns of a serial killer preying on children, as anxious parents wait outside a school.
Little Elsie Beckmann leaves school, bouncing a ball on her way home. She is approached by Hans Beckert, who is whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King" by Edvard Grieg. He offers to buy her a balloon from a blind street-vendor. He walks and talks with her. Elsie's place at the dinner table remains empty, her ball is shown rolling away across a patch of grass, and her balloon is lost in the telephone lines overhead.
In the wake of Elsie's death, Beckert sends an angry letter about his crimes to the newspapers, from which the police extract clues using the new techniques of fingerprinting and handwriting analysis. Under mounting pressure from city leaders, the police work around the clock. Inspector Karl Lohmann instructs his men to intensify their search and to check the records of recently released psychiatric patients to look for those with a history of violence against children. They stage frequent raids to question known criminals, disrupting underworld business so badly that Der SchrÃ¤nker ("The Safecracker") calls a meeting of the city's criminal bosses. They decide to organize their own manhunt, using beggars to watch and guard the children.
The police discover two clues corresponding to the killer's letter in Beckert's rented rooms. They wait there to arrest him.
Beckert sees a young girl in the reflection of a shop window. Following her, he is thwarted when the girl meets her mother. When he encounters another young girl, he succeeds in befriending her, but the blind beggar recognizes his whistling. The blind man tells one of his friends, who tails the killer with assistance from other beggars he alerts along the way. Afraid of losing him, one young man chalks a large M (for MÃ¶rder, meaning "murderer" in German) on his hand, pretends to trip and bumps into Beckert, marking the back of his clothing.
The beggars close in. When Beckert finally realizes he is being followed, he hides inside a large office building just before the workers leave for the evening. The beggars call Der SchrÃ¤nker, and a team of criminals arrives. They tie up and torture a guard for information. After capturing the remaining watchmen, they systematically search the building from coal cellar to attic, finally catching Beckert. When a watchman manages to trip the silent alarm, the crooks narrowly escape with their prisoner before the police arrive. One, however, is captured and eventually tricked into revealing the purpose of the break-in (nothing was stolen) and where Beckert would be taken.
The criminals drag Beckert to an abandoned distillery to face a kangaroo court. He finds a large, silent crowd awaiting him. Beckert is given a "lawyer", who gamely argues in his defense but fails to win any sympathy from the "jury". Beckert delivers an impassioned monologue, saying that his urges compel him to commit murders that he later regrets, while the other criminals present break the law by choice. His "lawyer" points out that the presiding "judge" is himself wanted on three counts of totschlag (a form of homicide under German law). Beckert pleads to be handed over to the police, asking, "Who knows what it's like to be me?" Just as the enraged mob is about to kill him, the police arrive to arrest both Beckert and the criminals.
As the real trial passes, five judges prepare to pass judgment on Beckert. Before the sentence is announced, the shot cuts to three of the victims' mothers crying. Elsie's mother says no sentence would bring back the dead children, and "One has to keep closer watch over the children". The screen goes black as she adds, "All of you".
- Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert. M was Lorre's first major starring role, and it boosted his career, even though he was typecast as a villain for years after in films such as Mad Love and the film adaptation of Crime and Punishment. Before M, Lorre was mostly a comedic actor. After fleeing from the Nazis, he landed a major role in Alfred Hitchcock's first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), picking up English along the way.
- Otto Wernicke as Inspector Karl Lohmann. Wernicke made his breakthrough with M after playing many small roles in silent films for over a decade. After his part in M, he was in great demand due to the success of the film, including returning to the role of Karl Lohmann in The Testament of Doctor Mabuse, and he played supporting roles for the rest of his career.
- Gustaf GrÃ¼ndgens as Der SchrÃ¤nker ("The Safecracker"). GrÃ¼ndgens received acclaim for his role in the film and established a successful career for himself under Nazi rule, ultimately becoming director of the Staatliches Schauspielhaus (National Dramatic Theatre).
- Ellen Widmann as Frau Beckmann
- Inge Landgut as Elsie Beckmann
- Theodor Loos as Inspector Groeber
- Friedrich GnaÃ as Franz, the burglar
- Fritz Odemar as Cheater
- Paul Kemp as Pickpocket with seven watches
- Theo Lingen as BauernfÃ¤nger
- Rudolf BlÃ¼mner as Beckert's defender
- Georg John as Blind balloon-seller
- Franz Stein as Minister
- Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur as Police chief
- Gerhard Bienert as Criminal secretary
- Karl Platen as Damowitz, a night-watchman
- Rosa Valetti as Innkeeper
- Hertha von Walther as Prostitute
- Hanna Maron (uncredited) as Girl in circle at the beginning. She later immigrated to Israel, became a famous actor and passed away at the age of 91 on May 30, 2014.
- Klaus Pohl as Witness / one-eyed man (uncredited)
Lang placed an advert in a newspaper in 1930 stating that his next film would be MÃ¶rder unter uns (Murderer Among Us) and that it was about a child murderer. He immediately began receiving threatening letters in the mail, and was also denied a studio space to shoot the film at Staaken studio. When Lang confronted the head of Stakken studio to find out why he was being denied access, the studio head informed Lang that he was a member of the Nazi party and that the party suspected that the film was meant to depict the Nazis. This assumption was based entirely on the film's original title and the Nazi party relented when told the film's plot.
M was eventually shot in six weeks at a Staaken Zeppelinhalle studio, just outside Berlin. Lang made the film for Nero-Film, rather than with UFA or his own production company. It was produced by Nero studio head Seymour Nebenzal who would later produce Lang's The Testament of Doctor Mabuse. Other titles were given to the film before being given the title "M": Eine Stadt sucht einen MÃ¶rder (A City searches for a Murderer); and Dein MÃ¶rder sieht Dich an (Your Killer Looks At You). While researching for the film Lang spent eight days inside a mental institution in Germany and met several real child murderers, including Peter KÃ¼rten. He used several real criminals as extras in the film and eventually 25 cast members were arrested during the film's shooting. Peter Lorre was cast in the lead role of Hans Beckert, acting for the film during the day and appearing onstage in Valentine Katayev's Squaring the Circle at night.
Lang did not show any acts of violence or deaths of children on screen, and later said that by only suggesting violence he forced "each individual member of the audience to create the gruesome details of the murder according to his personal imagination."
M has been said, by various critics and reviewers, to be based on serial killer Peter KÃ¼rtenâ"the "Vampire of DÃ¼sseldorf"â"whose crimes took place in the 1920s. Lang denied that he drew from this case in an interview in 1963 with film historian Gero Gandert; "At the time I decided to use the subject matter of M there were many serial killers terrorizing Germanyâ"Haarmann, Grossmann, KÃ¼rten, Denke, [...]".
M was Lang's first sound film and Lang experimented with the new technology. It has a dense and complex soundtrack, as opposed to the more theatrical "talkies" being released at the same time. The soundtrack includes a narrator, sounds occurring off-camera, sounds motivating action, and suspenseful moments of silence before sudden noise. Lang was also able to make fewer cuts in the film's editing, since sound effects could now be used to inform the narrative.
The film was one of the first to use a leitmotif, a technique borrowed from opera, associating a tune with Lorre's character, who whistles the tune "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. Later in the film, the mere sound of the song lets the audience know that he is nearby, off-screen. This association of a musical theme with a particular character or situation is now a film staple. Peter Lorre could not whistle, however â" it is actually Lang's wife and co-writer Thea von Harbou who is heard in the film.
Release and reception
M premiered in Berlin on 11 May 1931 at the UFA-Palast am Zoo in a version lasting 117 minutes. The original negative is preserved at the Federal Film Archive in a 96-minute version. In 1960, an edited 98-minute version was released. The film was restored in 2000 by the Netherlands Film Museum in collaboration with the Federal Film Archive, the Cinemateque Suisse, Kirsch Media and ZDF/ARTE., with Janus Films releasing the 109-minute version as part of its Criterion Collection using prints from the same period from the Cinemateque Suisse and the Netherlands Film Museum. A complete print of the English version and selected scenes from the French version were included in the 2010 Criterion Collection releases of the film.
M was later released in the U.S. in 1933 by Foremco Pictures. After playing in German with English subtitles for two weeks, it was pulled from theaters and replaced by an English version. The re-dubbing was directed by Eric Hakim and Lorre was one of the few cast members to reprise his role in the film. As with many other early talkies from the years 1930â"1931, M was partially reshot with actors (including Lorre) performing dialogue in other languages for foreign markets after the German original was completed, apparently without Lang's involvement. An English-language version was filmed and released in 1932 from an edited script with Lorre speaking his own words, his first English part. An edited French version was also released but despite the fact that Lorre spoke French his speaking parts were dubbed.
Paramount saw little value in its film library (inclusing: M), and sold 764 of its pre-1949 films to MCA Inc. (known today as Universal Studios Inc. in 1962) in February 1958.
A Variety review said that the film was "a little too long. Without spoiling the effectâ"even bettering itâ"cutting could be done. There are a few repetitions and a few slow scenes." Graham Greene compared the film to "looking through the eye-piece of a microscope, through which the tangled mind is exposed, laid flat on the slide: love and lust; nobility and perversity, hatred of itself and despair jumping at you from the jelly".
In 2013 a DCP version was released by Kino Lorber and played theatrically in North America in the original aspect ratio of 1.19:1. Critic Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called this the "most-complete-ever version" at 111 minutes. The film was restored by TLEFilms Film Restoration & Preservation Services (Berlin) in association with Archives franÃ§aises du film - CNC (Paris) and PostFactory GmbH (Berlin).
Lang considered M to be his favorite of his own films because of the social criticism in the film. In 1937, he told a reporter that he made the film "to warn mothers about neglecting children".
A Hollywood remake of the same name was released in 1951, shifting the action from Berlin to Los Angeles. Nero Films head Seymour Nebenzal and his son Harold produced the film for Columbia Pictures. Lang had once told a reporter "People ask me why I do not remake M in English. I have no reason to do that. I said all I had to say about that subject in the picture. Now I have other things to say." The remake was directed by Joseph Losey and starred David Wayne in Lorre's role. Losey stated that he had seen M in the early 1930s and watched it again shortly before shooting the remake, but that he "never referred to it. I only consciously repeated one shot. There may have been unconscious repetitions in terms of the atmosphere, of certain sequences." Lang later said that when the remake was released he "had the best reviews of my life".
The original 1931 M was ranked at number thirty-three in Empire magazines' "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.
- Trial movies
- List of films featuring surveillance
- M is available for free download at the Internet Archive
- M at the Internet Movie Database
- The Restoration of "M" (2003) from TLEFilms.com
- M at the TCM Movie Database
- M at Box Office Mojo
- M at Rotten Tomatoes
- M: an interpretation
- Criterion Collection essay by Stanley Kauffmann
- M Photographs and literature
- M and the making of Peter Lorre