Directed by Fritz Lang.
Starring Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgens, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut and Theodor Loos.
In Berlin, several children fall victim to a serial killer. With pressure mounting from a terrified city, both the police and the criminal underworld launch their own hunts for the killer before he can strike again.
The serial killer is no stranger to the horror genre, these all too human boogeymen infecting a seemingly infinite number of films and TV shows. However, where did the serial killer sub-genre begin? From Fritz Lang, the cinematic master behind silent sci-fi classic Metropolis comes what is arguably the first “serial killer” film, the groundbreaking and disturbing psychological horror simply entitled M.
Child murder is among the worst crimes that a person can commit and a subject that few films even today dare tackle, with most avoiding it altogether. However, in a shocking move, especially given the time the film was made, M dares tackle the subject head-on by focusing its story on the hunt for a serial killer of children. While no scenes of murder are shown, one can’t help, given the subject matter, feel an overpowering sense of dread and disturbance throughout. Aside from its groundbreaking and shocking story, M is also an early example of a police procedural. Much of the runtime is dedicated to showing the minutiae of police work as detectives interrogate suspects, examine evidence and attempt to maintain order as they hunt the killer. M even contains a scene of a psychologist practising an early version of offender profiling, an investigative technique that wouldn’t become widespread until the 1970s.
The police hunt for the killer allows director Fritz Lang to explore themes around paranoia, class, crime and the state of German society as it was at the time. We see many scenes of people being accused of being the killer, often for the simple act of being an adult helping a child. These moments of accusation and panic often leading to violence that forces the police to divert resources to quell the disorder, a vicious cycle that only ensures the killer remains free. The film’s tone is dark and cynical, a sentiment reflected in the story when the criminal underworld decides to take it upon itself to begin its own hunt for the killer. Although it is clear from the start that this effort at vigilantism is far from a noble attempt to bring justice to the victims but rather a means to get rid of the heavy police presence that is stifling their criminal enterprises.
Ironically, despite the efforts of the police, it’s the criminals who ultimately catch the killer in the end, subjecting him to a mock “trial” that is merely a charade to count the minutes till they can hang him. However, in showing the killer’s mock trial, Lang uses it to add another theme, perhaps its most fascinating, that of choice vs compulsion. The killer, Hans Beckert, might be a monstrous murderer of children, but he argues that he only does so because his sick mind commands him to against his will. The criminals threatening to hang him, many of whom are also murderers, kill by choice, thus arguably making them just as morally empty as Beckert.
Although made in the early days of the sound film, M is a highly technically accomplished film that features several, for the time, innovative audio and visual tricks. The camera work is full of fluid tracking shots, such as masterful take that moves through a seedy Berlin bar and then up to the offices upstairs. There is also some inspired repeated use of mirrors to create highly expressive, moody and sinister images, such as Beckert spying on a victim via a shop window, the lust in his face proving profoundly unsettling. I also enjoy the low dark lighting that often creates a dark foreboding atmosphere that lingers over the film, almost like the near-constant fog of cigarette smoke. Seriously, the amount of smoking done in this film was severe enough that I could almost feel myself choking from second-hand inhalation.
The framing and editing of scenes are also brilliant as Lang uses clever intercuts to highlight the similarities and differences between characters. One such scene follows a pair of meetings; one among criminals, the other police, as they attempt to devise methods to catch Beckert. The conversations following similar lines of thought, complete with a rather dim view of the wider public. Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the film is, of course, its use of sound. The lack of a musical score giving the film a realistic, at times, almost documentary-like feel. In place of music, though, we have whistling, with Beckert’s whistling of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” serving as his calling card as the tune taking on a sinister connotation, even as it eventually proves the clue that leads to his capture.
In the role of child killer Hans Beckert, Peter Lorre gives a chilling performance, playing the role with varying degrees of quiet creepiness and animalistic neediness. While his dialogue is limited, Lorre’s final howling monologue in which he pleads for understanding and mercy at his mental illness is a terrific display. His snarling wide-eyed speech, making Beckert come across as a sad, pathetic creature. Save for a brief moment of creepiness as he describes how killing children quell his inner demon and the pleasure it brings him. It’s a phenomenal performance that shows why Lorre became, ironically much to his frustration, a popular casting choice for villains upon arriving in Hollywood.
Rivalling Lorre for dominance is Gustaf Grundgen as the criminal mastermind known as Der Schranker (The Safecracker). From the moment he enters the film, Grundgen, always sporting black gloves, is a commanding formidable screen presence. Taking charge of the situation and delivering fiery commands and declarations that almost feel eerily prophetic as to the behaviour of the Nazi’s. Grunden’s stylistic choices of black gloves, a fedora and a leather coat certainly didn’t help matters, with him often looking like an undercover officer of the Gestapo, especially when he talks of “extermination”.
Technically groundbreaking in its cinematography and use of sound, well-acted particularly by Peter Lorre in a star-making performance and boasting a story that remains shocking 90 years on, Fritz Lang’s M is more than deserving of its label as a cinematic classic.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★