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M (1931 film)

M (1931 film)

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M is a 1931 German drama
Drama film
A drama film is a film genre that depends mostly on in-depth development of realistic characters dealing with emotional themes. Dramatic themes such as alcoholism, drug addiction, infidelity, moral dilemmas, racial prejudice, religious intolerance, poverty, class divisions, violence against women...

-thriller directed by Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang
Friedrich Christian Anton "Fritz" Lang was an Austrian-American filmmaker, screenwriter, and occasional film producer and actor. One of the best known émigrés from Germany's school of Expressionism, he was dubbed the "Master of Darkness" by the British Film Institute...

 and written by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou
Thea von Harbou
Thea Gabriele von Harbou was a German actress, author and film director of Prussian aristocratic origin. She was born in Tauperlitz in the Kingdom of Bavaria.-Early work:...

. It was Lang's first sound film
Sound film
A sound film is a motion picture with synchronized sound, or sound technologically coupled to image, as opposed to a silent film. The first known public exhibition of projected sound films took place in Paris in 1900, but decades would pass before sound motion pictures were made commercially...

, although he had directed more than a dozen films previously.

The film has become a classic which Lang himself considered his finest work.

Plot


The action opens with a group of children playing a game involving a song about a child murder
Child murder
The murder of children is considered an abhorrent crime in much of the world; they are perceived within their communities and the state at large as being vulnerable, and therefore especially susceptible to abduction and murder. The protection of children from abuse and possible death often involves...

er in the courtyard of an apartment building in Berlin. This foreshadows the appearance of Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre
Peter Lorre
Peter Lorre was an Austrian-American actor frequently typecast as a sinister foreigner.He caused an international sensation in 1931 with his portrayal of a serial killer who preys on little girls in the German film M...

), a serial killer
Serial killer
A serial killer, as typically defined, is an individual who has murdered three or more people over a period of more than a month, with down time between the murders, and whose motivation for killing is usually based on psychological gratification...

 who preys on children.

The longest part of the movie is concerned with the public's reaction to a series of child murders, the frantic police investigation and, finally, the city's criminals, who organize their own manhunt because their criminal enterprises are being hampered by ever-present police activities. The audience sees Beckert only briefly until the second half of the movie; his presence is occasionally acknowledged by showing merely his shadow, shots of his body or the sound of his whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King
In the Hall of the Mountain King
In the Hall of the Mountain King is a piece of orchestral music composed by Edvard Grieg for the sixth scene of Act II in Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt, which premiered in Christiania on February 24, 1876....

" by Edvard Grieg.

Beckert befriends Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut), a little girl playing with a ball. He buys her a balloon from a blind
Blindness
Blindness is the condition of lacking visual perception due to physiological or neurological factors.Various scales have been developed to describe the extent of vision loss and define blindness...

 man. Tension gradually builds as her mother (Ellen Widmann) waits for Elsie to come home, culminating in her frantically calling for Elsie out of the window. The murder is not shown; there are no direct indications of the violence. The audience is shown only Elsie's ball rolling through long grass in front of some bushes, then the child-shaped balloon ensnared in telephone lines, and subsequently floating away.

Meanwhile, the police, under Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke
Otto Wernicke
Otto Karl Robert Wernicke was a German actor. He was best known for his role as police inspector Karl Lohmann in the two Fritz Lang films M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. He was the first one to portray Captain Smith in the first "official" Titanic film.Wernicke was married to a Jewish woman...

), pursue the killer using then state of the art techniques such as fingerprinting and handwriting analysis. They also stage frequent raids and question known criminals. This affects underworld
Organized crime
Organized crime or criminal organizations are transnational, national, or local groupings of highly centralized enterprises run by criminals for the purpose of engaging in illegal activity, most commonly for monetary profit. Some criminal organizations, such as terrorist organizations, are...

 business so badly that Der Schränker ("The Safecracker", played by Gustaf Gründgens
Gustaf Gründgens
Gustaf Gründgens , born Gustav Heinrich Arnold Gründgens, was one of Germany's most famous and influential actors of the 20th century, intendant and artistic director of theatres in Berlin, Düsseldorf, and Hamburg...

) calls a meeting of the top bosses. They decide to get rid of the killer themselves so they can resume "business". They enlist the help of the city's beggars to divide up the city "metre by metre" and keep watch over the children. Inspector Lohmann hits on the idea that the killer may have a previous psychiatric record, and orders the compilation of a list of recently released patients with a history of offenses against children. As the police visit the home of each person on the list, they discover two clues in the rooms of Beckert, who is out at the time.
Thus, a race develops between the police and the criminals to catch the killer.

We see Beckert looking in a shop window. A young girl appears in the reflection. Following her down the street, he is forced to stop when the girl meets her mother. But he has been aroused; at a cafe he hurriedly drinks two cognacs, as if to quench the fires inside. When he encounters another young girl, his face shows that the urge is unstoppable, overwhelming.

After befriending the girl, Beckert makes the mistake of compulsively whistling his characteristic tune again near the blind man who sells balloons. The blind man alerts one of his friends, who tails the killer with assistance from other beggars he alerts along the way. To track him, one of them marks a large letter M (for Mörder, meaning "murderer" in German
German language
German is a West Germanic language, related to and classified alongside English and Dutch. With an estimated 90 – 98 million native speakers, German is one of the world's major languages and is the most widely-spoken first language in the European Union....

) on the back of Beckert's coat with chalk by pretending to slip on an orange peel Beckert has dropped and slapping the murderer's shoulder in seeming irritation.

When Beckert finally realizes he is being followed, he tries to get away, hiding inside a large office building. After receiving a call from the lookouts, Der Schränker assembles a team to search the building after all the day workers have left. They tie up and torture a guard for information, capture the remaining watchmen, then systematically explore the building from coal cellar to attic, finally capturing Beckert with seconds to spare after one of the watchmen trips the silent alarm
Burglar alarm
Burglar , alarms are systems designed to detect unauthorized entry into a building or area. They consist of an array of sensors, a control panel and alerting system, and interconnections...

. One crook, Franz, is left behind in the hasty departure and captured by the police.

The criminals drag Beckert to an abandoned distillery. He fights to escape, then turns and finds a huge, silent crowd awaiting him, a kangaroo court
Kangaroo court
A kangaroo court is "a mock court in which the principles of law and justice are disregarded or perverted".The outcome of a trial by kangaroo court is essentially determined in advance, usually for the purpose of ensuring conviction, either by going through the motions of manipulated procedure or...

. While the camera pans very slowly from left to right, the crowd is silent and frozen, not a muscle moves. The impression is ominous and implacable. However, Beckert is even given a "lawyer". Beckert delivers an impassioned monologue
Monologue
In theatre, a monologue is a speech presented by a single character, most often to express their thoughts aloud, though sometimes also to directly address another character or the audience. Monologues are common across the range of dramatic media...

, saying that the voices in his head compel him to commit these crimes, while the other criminals present break the law by choice. His "lawyer" even points out that the presiding "judge" is himself wanted on three counts of manslaughter
Manslaughter
Manslaughter is a legal term for the killing of a human being, in a manner considered by law as less culpable than murder. The distinction between murder and manslaughter is said to have first been made by the Ancient Athenian lawmaker Dracon in the 7th century BC.The law generally differentiates...

. Beckert adds, "Who knows what it's like to be me?" Finally, just as the enraged criminals are about to kill Beckert, the police arrive, having tricked Franz into spilling what he knows.

The final image of the film is that of five judges about to sentence Beckert. Before the sentence is announced, the shot cuts to three of the victims' mothers crying, with Elsie's mother saying that neither sentence would bring back the dead children, and that "One has to keep closer watch over the children." The screen goes black and her voice adds, "All of you."

Cast

  • Peter Lorre
    Peter Lorre
    Peter Lorre was an Austrian-American actor frequently typecast as a sinister foreigner.He caused an international sensation in 1931 with his portrayal of a serial killer who preys on little girls in the German film M...

     as Hans Beckert. M was Lorre's first major starring role, and it boosted his career, even though he was typecast as a villain
    Villain
    A villain is an "evil" character in a story, whether a historical narrative or, especially, a work of fiction. The villain usually is the antagonist, the character who tends to have a negative effect on other characters...

     for years after in films such as Mad Love
    Mad Love (1935 film)
    Mad Love is a 1935 American horror film adaptation of Maurice Renard's story The Hands of Orlac. Directed by German-émigré film maker Karl Freund, the film stars Peter Lorre as Dr. Gogol, Frances Drake as Yvonne Orlac and Colin Clive as Stephen Orlac. The plot revolves around Doctor Gogol's...

    and the film adaptation of Crime and Punishment
    Crime and Punishment (1935 American film)
    Crime and Punishment is a 1935 film directed by Josef von Sternberg for Columbia Pictures. The screenplay was adapted by Joseph Anthony and S.K. Lauren from Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel of the same title...

    . Before M, Lorre was mostly a comedic actor. After fleeing from the Nazis
    Nazi Germany
    Nazi Germany , also known as the Third Reich , but officially called German Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Greater German Reich from 26 June 1943 onward, is the name commonly used to refer to the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by...

    , he landed a major role in Alfred Hitchcock
    Alfred Hitchcock
    Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, KBE was a British film director and producer. He pioneered many techniques in the suspense and psychological thriller genres. After a successful career in British cinema in both silent films and early talkies, Hitchcock moved to Hollywood...

    's first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much
    The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 film)
    The Man Who Knew Too Much is a British suspense film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, featuring Peter Lorre, and released by Gaumont British. It was one of the most successful and critically acclaimed films of Hitchcock's British period....

    (1934), picking up English
    English language
    English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

     along the way.
  • Otto Wernicke
    Otto Wernicke
    Otto Karl Robert Wernicke was a German actor. He was best known for his role as police inspector Karl Lohmann in the two Fritz Lang films M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. He was the first one to portray Captain Smith in the first "official" Titanic film.Wernicke was married to a Jewish woman...

     as Inspector Karl Lohmann. Wernicke made his breakthrough with M after playing many small roles in silent film
    Silent film
    A silent film is a film with no synchronized recorded sound, especially with no spoken dialogue. In silent films for entertainment the dialogue is transmitted through muted gestures, pantomime and title cards...

    s 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 Gründgens
    Gustaf Gründgens
    Gustaf Gründgens , born Gustav Heinrich Arnold Gründgens, was one of Germany's most famous and influential actors of the 20th century, intendant and artistic director of theatres in Berlin, Düsseldorf, and Hamburg...

     as Der Schränker. Gründgens 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".

Other cast

  • Ellen Widmann as Frau Beckmann
  • Inge Landgut as Elsie Beckmann
  • Theodor Loos
    Theodor Loos
    Theodor August Konrad Loos was a German actor.The son of a watchmaker and instruments manufacturer, he left secondary school prematurely and worked for three years at an export firm for music instruments in Leipzig, and after that for his uncle, an art dealer in Berlin...

     as Inspector Groeber
  • Friedrich Gnaß
    Friedrich Gnaß
    Friedrich Gnaß was a German film actor. He appeared in 53 films between 1929 and 1958.-Selected filmography:* M * Rasputin, Dämon der Frauen * The Star of Valencia...

     as Franz, the burglar
  • Fritz Odemar as Cheater
  • Paul Kemp as Pickpocket with six watches
  • Theo Lingen
    Theo Lingen
    Theo Lingen , born Franz Theodor Schmitz, was a German actor, director and screenwriter. He appeared in over 230 films between 1929 and 1978, and directed 21 films between 1936 and 1960.-Life and career:...

     as Bauernfänger
  • Rudolf Blümner as Beckert's defender
  • Georg John
    Georg John
    Georg John was a German stage and film actor.-Early life:Georg John was born in Schmiegel, Province of Posen, Imperial Germany.- Career :John began his career around 1900 in smaller stages and traveling theatres...

     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
    Rosa Valetti
    Rosa Valetti , born Rosa Vallentin, was a German actress, cabaret performer and singer.- Biography :Rosa Valetti was born in Berlin, the daughter of industrialist Felix Vallentin and sister of actor Hermann Vallentin. She played her first roles in the theatres of suburban Berlin...

     as Innkeeper
  • Hertha von Walther
    Hertha von Walther
    Hertha von Walther was a German film actress. She appeared in 80 films between 1921 and 1983.-Selected filmography:* Joyless Street * Ways to Strength and Beauty * Secrets of a Soul...

     as Prostitute
  • Hanna Maron
    Hanna Maron
    - See also :* List of Israel Prize recipients...

     as Girl in circle at the beginning (uncredited)
  • Klaus Pohl as Witness / one-eyed man (uncredited)

Production



M is supposedly based on the real-life case of serial killer Peter Kürten
Peter Kürten
Peter Kürten was a German serial killer dubbed The Vampire of Düsseldorf by the contemporary media. He committed a series of sex crimes, assaults and murders against adults and children, most notoriously from February to November 1929 in Düsseldorf.-Early life:Kürten was born into a...

, the "Vampire of Düsseldorf
Düsseldorf
Düsseldorf is the capital city of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia and centre of the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region.Düsseldorf is an important international business and financial centre and renowned for its fashion and trade fairs. Located centrally within the European Megalopolis, the...

", whose crimes took place in the 1920s, although Lang denied that he drew from this case. "At the time I decided to use the subject matter of M there were many serial killers terrorizing Germany — Haarmann
Fritz Haarmann
Friedrich Heinrich Karl "Fritz" Haarmann , also known as the Butcher of Hanover and the Vampire of Hanover was a German serial killer who is believed to have been responsible for the murder of 27 boys and young men between 1918 and 1924...

, Grossmann, Kürten
Peter Kürten
Peter Kürten was a German serial killer dubbed The Vampire of Düsseldorf by the contemporary media. He committed a series of sex crimes, assaults and murders against adults and children, most notoriously from February to November 1929 in Düsseldorf.-Early life:Kürten was born into a...

, Denke
Karl Denke
Karl Denke was a serial killer from Germany.Denke was born in Münsterberg, Silesia in the Kingdom of Prussia...

," Lang told film historian Gero Gandert in a 1963 interview.

Lorre's character whistles the tune "In the Hall of the Mountain King
In the Hall of the Mountain King
In the Hall of the Mountain King is a piece of orchestral music composed by Edvard Grieg for the sixth scene of Act II in Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt, which premiered in Christiania on February 24, 1876....

" from Edvard Grieg
Edvard Grieg
Edvard Hagerup Grieg was a Norwegian composer and pianist. He is best known for his Piano Concerto in A minor, for his incidental music to Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt , and for his collection of piano miniatures Lyric Pieces.-Biography:Edvard Hagerup Grieg was born in...

's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. However, Peter Lorre himself could not whistle – it is actually Lang who is heard. The film was one of the first to use a leitmotif
Leitmotif
A leitmotif , sometimes written leit-motif, is a musical term , referring to a recurring theme, associated with a particular person, place, or idea. It is closely related to the musical idea of idée fixe...

, associating "In the Hall of the Mountain King
In the Hall of the Mountain King
In the Hall of the Mountain King is a piece of orchestral music composed by Edvard Grieg for the sixth scene of Act II in Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt, which premiered in Christiania on February 24, 1876....

" with the Lorre character. 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, a technique borrowed from opera
Opera
Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance...

, is now a film staple.

As with many other early talkies from the years 1930–1931, M was partially refilmed with actors (including Lorre) performing dialogue in other languages for foreign markets after the German original was completed, apparently without Lang's involvement.

"M" was premiered on May 11, 1931 in a version lasting 117 minutes. The original negative is preserved at the Federal Film Archive in a 96-minute version. In 1960 a shortened version was released lasting 98 minutes. 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
The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection is a video-distribution company selling "important classic and contemporary films" to film aficionados. The Criterion series is noted for helping to standardize the letterbox format for home video, bonus features, and special editions...

 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.

Reaction


A Hollywood remake
Remake
A remake is a piece of media based primarily on an earlier work of the same medium.-Film:The term "remake" is generally used in reference to a movie which uses an earlier movie as the main source material, rather than in reference to a second, later movie based on the same source...

 of the same name
M (1951 film)
M is a 1951 American remake of Fritz Lang's film of the same name, shifting the action from Berlin to Los Angeles and changing the killer's name from Hans Beckert to Martin W. Harrow. The remake, directed by Joseph Losey with David Wayne playing Peter Lorre's role, was not well received by critics...

 was released in 1951, shifting the action from Berlin
Berlin
Berlin is the capital city of Germany and is one of the 16 states of Germany. With a population of 3.45 million people, Berlin is Germany's largest city. It is the second most populous city proper and the seventh most populous urban area in the European Union...

 to Los Angeles
Los Ángeles
Los Ángeles is the capital of the province of Biobío, in the commune of the same name, in Region VIII , in the center-south of Chile. It is located between the Laja and Biobío rivers. The population is 123,445 inhabitants...

. The remake was directed by Joseph Losey
Joseph Losey
Joseph Walton Losey was an American theater and film director. After studying in Germany with Bertolt Brecht, Losey returned to the United States, eventually making his way to Hollywood...

 and starred David Wayne
David Wayne
David Wayne was an American actor with a career spanning nearly 50 years.-Early life and career:...

 in Lorre's role. M was ranked #33 in Empire
Empire (magazine)
Empire is a British film magazine published monthly by Bauer Consumer Media. From the first issue in July 1989, the magazine was edited by Barry McIlheney and published by Emap. Bauer purchased Emap Consumer Media in early 2008...

magazines "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.

External links