"What do you know about it? Who are you anyway? Who are you? Criminals? Are you proud of yourselves? Proud of breaking safes or cheating at cards? Things you could just as well keep your fingers off. You wouldn't need to do all that if you'd learn a proper trade or if you'd work. If you weren't a bunch of lazy bastards. But I... I can't help myself! I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me, the fire, the voices, the torment!"
In German, the word "Mörder" is translated as "murderer". Fritz Lang's M is a revolutionary classic of worldwide cinema (it made an especially influential impact on German filmmaking), and its eerily straightforward title is derived from the German word "Mörder". M is an expressive, supremely haunting venture into the workings of a serial killer that brilliantly raises questions on the nature of justice and who should deal out punishment. The film marked director Fritz Lang's first non-silent picture. Prior to making this conversion, the director was renowned for such films as Metropolis and Die Nibelungen among several others. For its time, M was a technically innovative movie which utilised the new "talkie" technology to great effect. M is also an influential movie that introduced two filmic genres: the serial killer genre and the police investigation genre. Needless to say, this is an important film and an archetypal blueprint responsible for spawning hundreds of facsimiles.
During the early years of the cinematic sound era, most films were given a static and theatrical look. The most prevalent film cameras were too noisy and were mostly anchored to one spot. Actors were required to lean in closely to speak into omni-directional microphones often hidden in vases or other objects (this was brilliantly parodied in the classic Singin' in the Rain). Fritz Lang's M was filmed in 1930. Most filmmakers were amazed by sound technology, and heavily employed it for their films. But M is nothing like most of its peers. Instead of a boring still camera, Lang's lens moved at will; soaring and craning through studio sets...producing an open, flowing, eloquent look for the movie. Lang, one of the supreme masters of silent cinema, wasn't interested in using the new technology merely to replicate reality. To Lang, sound was no carnival sideshow gimmick. He instead used sound for dramatic effect to create an expressionist sound design to augment the narrative and visuals. M actually contains a lot of silence, with the majority of the film being shot devoid of sound equipment. Without sound equipment, the camera was free to roam around the set. Instead of the drone and rattle of a bustling city, Lang gives us isolated sounds such as footsteps or the distant beeping of a car horn. These innovative decisions combine to bestow the film with a chilling, almost surreal soundtrack...at once hollow, brittle and haunting.
Fritz Lang's M closely parallels the case of serial killer Peter Kurten, the "Vampire of Dusseldorf". For months after Kurten's killing spree ended, the country was still held in a state of terror. The release date for M was subsequent to Kurten's much-publicised trial, and just before his execution. Serial killer trials were all the rage in 1920s Germany. At the time of its release, M addressed a very topical issue of serial killers. Today, M can be viewed as a timeless masterpiece that presents an effective snapshot of a 1920s society. Although the technical merits of M may be looked upon as somewhat dreary and ordinary, the film must be viewed on its own terms: the camera movements were innovative and the evocative sound mix was unprecedented.
As I stated before, the storyline of M was somewhat inspired by the killing spree of Peter Kurten. The original title of the film was The Murder Among Us, but changed to M to impart the film with a more eerie, timeless and creepy overtone. The single letter also has great relevance to a significant shot in the film: Peter Lorre, with great horror, notices the letter "M" on his back and realises that people are onto him. The film's basic story concerns Hans Beckert (Lorre): a serial killer who holds a small German city in a firm state of terror. Hans targets young children for his murder victims. He befriends them in the street, tempts them with gifts, and takes a long walk with them before eventually murdering them. During the opening scenes of the film, Hans claims his latest victim: young Elsie Beckman. The piercing, haunting cry of Elsie's mother echoes into the new millennium.
The police grow desperate in their search to apprehend the murderer. With no clues and little suspects, their desperation begins to affect the state of business in the city. As businesses begin to lose customers, the criminals team up in an attempt to catch the kindermörder (that is, child murderer). Pulling the murderer off the streets would put an end to the massive police presence that has effectively ended most criminal activity. In an act of gross desperation, they begin to use the homeless community. The killer frequently whistles Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suite", and it proves to be his sole identifying feature.
Peter Lorre turns in a haunting performance as the whistling paedophile. Throughout much of the film we never see his face. His shadow is instead used, accompanied by his voice or whistle. Lorre's panicky, jowly, bug-eyed killer seems ready to crawl out of his own flesh at any time. His character is hunted by police before being captured and taken to trial by the forces of the Berlin underworld. Lorre's final speech, featuring the anguished pleas of a madman, is absolutely unforgettable. While his character of Hans Beckert commits monstrous crimes, the film portrays him not as a monster but as a victim of his own infirmity. Lang doesn't ask us to forgive the kindermörder...he asks us merely to understand that he is just a complex, flawed human like the rest of us. As the city closes around this sad, lonely and helpless figure, it's difficult not to feel some semblance of pity for him.
Fritz Lang's M is a brutally atmospheric thriller with a dark and moody feel to it. There are countless shadowy rooms in which the action transpires. Lang's film is eerily prophetic, which gives the beautifully stark cinematography an aura of terror. This is a picture that should frighten us, yet we're uncertain why. Naturally the apparent villain is the murderer...however as the film proceeds it's the angry mob and its brand of snarling justice that makes the audience cower in fear. With meticulous pacing, the film slowly climbs the ladder...steadily building tension step-by-step...until the final, soul-wrenching scene where the ugliness of the human spirit is on full display.
In spite of all the positive aspects of M, the film occasionally has difficulty engaging a viewer. Its ponderous pace won't be liked by all. Regardless of some terrific shots, one may feel sleepy and occasionally bored. It's unfortunate that a few aspects have dated to the extent that it isn't flattering many decades on. It's also difficult to follow at times. Every so often a few things are gruelling to devour.
Despite a few shortcomings, M is a masterpiece that cannot be overlooked. It's a classic piece of cinema that demonstrates how a disturbing story and poignant themes can grab an audience and leave them with an entirely new perspective on such matters. Even though it has been many decades since the film was released, it still holds an immense impact. When compared to modern thrillers, Fritz Lang's M easily holds its own. Cinema enthusiasts and budding filmmakers of any stripe cannot afford to miss it.