Fritz Lang’s 1931 crime picture remains one of the greatest depictions of social rot ever put on film.
Once in awhile I get asked what are my favorite films, or my top ten greatest movies, and so forth. My lists have changed over time, but there are certain films that have always been on it. One of these has an unusual title, and I often get puzzled looks because people aren’t familiar with it. From Germany in 1931, directed by Fritz Lang, its title consists of just one letter: M.
Lang had become the most prominent German film director of the silent era, specializing in films of crime and suspense, but most famous today for his 1927 epic science fiction film Metropolis. With the coming of sound, Lang dived right in with this, his first talkie, and it proved to be a sensation.
M stands for murder. Someone is killing little girls. Lang doesn’t show any of these murders, but the way he tells the story is chilling. We hear the killer whistling the Hall of the Mountain King theme from Grieg’s Peer Gynt but we can’t see his face clearly. In one scene, a child carrying a balloon looks up at a stranger in the street. We cut to the worried mother at her home waiting for the girl to return. Then we cut to a shot of the balloon floating along until it gets caught in telephone wires. The horror is conveyed indirectly, but unmistakably.
Lang seems completely at ease in the sound format. There is no musical score, but the dialogue, sound effects and design are brilliantly realized. The movie gradually expands and becomes more and more complex. The public are panicking, and the police respond by raiding every outlaw hideout they know of, and arresting people right and left in hope of flushing out the murderer. Eventually, the city’s criminal underworld gets fed up with all this. These killings are bad for business. Since the cops aren’t having any luck solving the case, the crooks—including burglars, extortionists, safe crackers, and pickpockets—decide to pull together and somehow catch the culprit themselves. What follows is an impeccable, intricate, and exciting series of episodes in which the criminals use their own extensive knowledge and contacts in the underworld in order to discover who the murderer is, capture him, and then put him on trial in their own makeshift court.
All the while, Lang is implying a kind of equivalence between the cops and the crooks. In case you haven’t got it yet, in one shot, the chief of thieves begins to make a gesture, and then Lang cuts to the chief of police completing the same gesture. This is a society on the brink of collapse into utter corruption, and the story of the child killer is in a way just a symbol of that deeper social malaise.
It’s not spoiling anything to tell you that the murderer gets caught, although I won’t reveal what happens next. The actor playing him is Peter Lorre. This is Peter Lorre before anyone had ever heard of him. He only had a couple of bit parts before this. And it will give you an idea of how great he is in M that he became instantly famous because of this film. Of course he went to America eventually, and became a fixture in Hollywood.
The sensational nature of this story made it controversial. It was censored in some places. Newspaper stories about the film claimed that the title was Murderers Are Among Us. The Nazi Party, not yet in power but influential, protested screenings of the film. You see, they just assumed that Lang was talking about them.
M is more than just a crime film. It truly dares to explore the darkest, most taboo realms of the soul. And its vision of a society in which police and criminal merge into one was profound, and prophetic.