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From its opening scene of a morbid children's game where a circle of small tykes sing about a murderous man in black chopping his victims to bits, the 1931 German classic M is a sinister tour through Germany's underbelly of haggard mothers, criminals, prostitutes and the child-murderer who terrorizes the streets of Berlin.
Director Fritz Lang (who considered the film his personal favorite) collaborated on the screenplay for M with his wife Thea von Harbou who also co-scripted Lang's 1926 silent masterpiece Metropolis. Their plan was, in Lang's words, to depict "the ugliest, most utterly loathsome crime" imaginable, and the first script was about a person who sends anonymous letters. "But then we both decided that the most horrible crime was that of a child murderer," Lang later recalled.
Because he had directed a few crime thrillers during the silent era (including Spies (1928) and Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), Lang had several contacts within the Berlin police department. Through friends in the homicide bureau, he was able to meet several actual murderers, but the greatest source of dark inspiration was a man who, at the time of production, had not yet been caught. An apparently indiscriminate sadist and killer of men, women and children in Dusseldorf, Peter Kurten was eventually captured and guillotined in July of 1931.
Lang was frequently drawn to ideas of vengeance and justice, and never allowed the two to be reduced to simplistic terms (the 1936 lynch mob thriller Fury (1936) is a prime example). In M, the child murderer is pursued by the thieves and beggars of Berlin, who hope that his capture will reduce the number of arrests made within their own ranks by police. Once the killer falls into their hands, a kangaroo court is convened and Lang - in a rare cinematic move - allows the murderer to plead his case, thoroughly clouding the moral waters in this engaging, challenging thriller.
Lang originally titled his film Murderer Among Us but the ascending Nazi party objected to that title as possibly critical of their new ranks. Both Lang, whose mother was Jewish, and the film's star, Peter Lorre, who was Jewish (and, ironically, Hitler's favorite actor) eventually fled Germany for America, making M a significant milestone between the German Expressionist cinema of the past and the Nazi-controlled cinema on the horizon. Taking a drastically different course, Theda von Harbou remained in Germany as a Nazi screenwriter and eventually divorced Lang.
Peter Lorre was a complete unknown at the time M was made whose disarming, bizarre demeanor allowed him to play the role of the child murderer Franz Becker to perfection. Portraying the killer as a quiet, retiring creature whose gentle manner and appearance present a disarming facade to his inner demons, Lorre's portrayal of a serial killer was precedent-setting, paving the way for all of the "ordinary," killers-next-door who populate the modern criminal landscape. Lorre's portrayal of Becker was undoubtedly the most memorable of his career, though it doomed the actor to a lifetime of typecasting, forever consigned to playing heavies, perverts and psychopaths in films from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) to Mad Love (1935).
Director: Fritz Lang
Producer: Seymour Nebenzal
Screenplay: Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Jansen, Fritz Lang, Karl Vash, Thea Von Harbou, Egon Jacobson (article)
Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner
Music: Edvard Greig
Art Direction: Emil Hasler, Karl Vollbrecht
Principle Cast: Peter Lorre (Hans Beckert), Gustaf Grundgens (Schraenker), Ellen Widmann (Madaem Becker), Inge Landgut (Elsie), Otto Wernicke (Inspector Karl Lohmann), Franz Stein (Minister)
by Felicia Feaster