What's the Big Deal?: M (1931)

The praise: Fritz Lang's M is No. 33 on Empire magazine's list of the greatest films not in English. Lang is considered one of cinema's most important pioneers, and M is widely viewed as his best work.

The context: Fritz Lang was one of Germany's top directors during the silent era, an artist with great technical skill whose Metropolis (1927) alone would have secured him a place in the history books. When talkies came to Germany -- more slowly than in some other countries, thanks to legal wrangling over patents and sound equipment -- Lang plunged in headfirst with M, which was released in May 1931, when most German cinemas still weren't wired for sound.

And what a creepy place to start! America's early sound era is known for its lighthearted musicals and screwball comedies. Germany's most famous early talkie is about the manhunt for a pervert who murders children.

Think about that. It's 1931, movies are just starting to have sound, and here's one about a kid killer. That he is also a pedophile is implied but not stated. All the bad stuff happens offscreen, but that hardly lessened the impact at a time when movies avoided suggesting that married people slept in the same bed or that bathrooms had toilets. Even now, 80 years later, killing a child in a movie is still considered taboo. Even gory slasher movies usually avoid it. The subject is so uncommon that when someone writes an article called "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep: A Brief History of Child Murder in Cinema," it can be both brief and thorough.

Where did Lang get such an unsettling plot device? From the daily newspapers, of course. A serial killer nicknamed "the Vampire of Düsseldorf" was still at large when Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou, started writing their screenplay; a few other notorious killers were still in the public memory after having terrorized Germany in the 1920s. Apparently, being a serial killer was very trendy in Germany after World War I.

The '20s were also a boom time for German cinema, and the advent of sound gave the industry one last gasp of creativity before the Nazis took over and kind of ruined everything (as Nazis are prone to do). Lang, who incidentally had some Jewish blood in him through his mother (she had converted to Catholicism), hated that the Nazi Party was becoming powerful. The working title for M was Murderers Among Us, catching the Nazis' attention as a possible reference to them and almost getting the production shut down. Lang's wife joined the Nazi Party in 1932; a divorce quickly followed.

Lang's next film, The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse (1932), was quite clear in its anti-Nazi sentiments. Lang later said that Joseph Goebbels had summoned him to his office to say two things: one, The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse was to be banned by the Third Reich; and two, Hitler was a tremendous admirer of Metropolis and wanted Lang to help the Nazis' propaganda division. Lang declined, fled to America, and had a successful career in Hollywood.

The movie: An unnamed German city (contextual clues indicate Berlin) is terrorized by a serial killer who preys on children. The nonviolent criminals -- the prostitutes, the pickpockets, and so forth -- want the monster caught as much as everyone else does, and it's a race between the police and the underworld to deal with the killer.

What it influenced: You can thank M for giving us cinema's first serial killer, and for basically inventing the police procedural. The villain in M writes a letter to the cops daring them to catch him, an act that has been copied by just about every movie psycho ever since. The cops, in turn, use the letter -- the kind of pencil it was written with, the kind of surface the paper must have been on, even fingerprints -- to track down the killer. All of this territory, so commonplace in movies now, had barely been explored before Lang did it.

Darth VaderWhile some early talkies used sound as a novelty or a gimmick, Lang made it integral to his story. The killer whistles a familiar tune ("In the Hall of the Mountain King," from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt) that gives him away as the culprit. Sometimes we know he's around not because we see him but because we hear his theme. It would soon become common to assign particular melodies to particular characters -- everyone from Scarlett O'Hara to Darth Vader gets one -- and it was already a standard device in opera. But Lang was among the first to use this device in a movie, and its creepy effectiveness showed the kind of potential that movie music could have.

Lang experimented with sound in other ways. In one scene, as a police psychologist gives his profile of the killer, we cut to a shot of the killer himself, in his apartment, with the psychologist still heard in voice-over. Once again, this device is now part of the basic language of film, but it didn't get that way until long after Lang tinkered with it. Think of all the movies where the FBI dude stands before a roomful of agents and describes the fugitive they're looking for, and he keeps talking as we cut to images of that very fugitive. Sometimes this is our first introduction to the villain, and the only reason we know it's him is by inference: the cops are talking about someone, and now the movie is showing him to us. Lang was one of the first filmmakers to use this kind of shorthand.

What to look for: The Nazis weren't just being paranoid when they thought the working title, Murderers Among Us, referred to them. M looks at how fear can drive people to mob mentality, and at how quickly law and order can break down. It begins with children singing nursery rhymes about the killer at large, everyone trying to go about their normal lives despite the doom that hangs over them. It's no stretch to draw parallels between this and a certain Reich.

The film also uses subtle editing tricks to suggest that the police force isn't all that different from the criminal underworld. Both are run by similar-looking men in suits who sit around tables and smoke cigarettes. In one instance, just as the top crime boss makes a hand gesture, we cut to the chief of police making the same gesture. David A. Cook writes:

This persistent equation of authority with criminality, and a brooding sense of destiny, make M as much about the crisis of German society at the time it was made as about child-murder (A History of Narrative Film, p. 292).

To a modern viewer, some of Peter Lorre's performance as the killer may seem overly dramatic. This was a holdover from the silent era, when actors had to be more theatrical to convey their emotions, and Lorre naturally had buggy eyes anyway. Nonetheless, his impassioned speech near the end is haunting. We hate the man's crimes -- but so does he. Lorre makes us sympathize with the killer's plight, being driven to do things he knows are reprehensible but that he cannot seem to control. It is the man's fellow criminals -- who are fine with other illegal activity but draw the line at child-murder -- who are most judgmental against him.

Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader writes:

The moral issues are complex and deftly handled: Lorre is at once entirely innocent and absolutely evil. Lang's detached, modified expressionist style gives the action a plastic beauty: the geometry of the images is reflected in the geometry of the plot, as every piece of film clicks together on its way to the inevitable climax. Two lines meet, and Lorre is at the center.

What's the big deal: With M, Fritz Lang did things that hadn't been done in movies before, in terms of both content and technical form. He used sound and editing in new ways. He made Peter Lorre an international star. He subtly indicted the rather unsavory fellows who were just then coming to power in Germany. And he kinda creeped us out, too.

Further reading: Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" essay and Stanley Kauffmann's Criterion essay are both insightful.

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Eric D. Snider (website) makes it a point never to whistle classical music while committing murder.