Fritz Lang's 1931 film M is remarkable for its modern editing and storytelling as well as for Lorre's bug-eyed performance as a serial killer preying on children.
Reviewed by Charles Conn, Fri., July 27, 2001
D: Fritz Lang (1931); with Peter Lorre, Inge Landgut, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Gründgens.
One of last great films of the German Golden Age (dating roughly from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1919 to Hitler's political ascension in the early Thirties), Lang's M is remarkable for its modern editing and storytelling as well as for Lorre's bug-eyed performance as a serial killer preying on children. By the Thirties, German filmmakers had perfected their expressive lighting and mise-en-scène techniques, elements both vividly apparent in M. The film demonstrates Lang's extraordinary cinematic sensibility ... just watch the police raid on the subterranean bar or the seamless long take introducing the Beggar's Union. Lang's first talkie, M uses sound expertly. Most famously, the killer whistles a creepy little tune that becomes an aural motif, lending Lorre (as Hans Beckert) a dark, frightening level of characterization. Though Lang betrays some contempt for the bumbling institutions of government and the law ... considering the crime union's success in light of the cops' failure to apprehend the wanted killer ... there is ultimately a resigned acceptance of man-made justice as the highest ideal we've got. The representation of Justice ... through a literal/figurative hand of the Law ... as capable of rescuing even the lowliest of scum from the violence of mob rule rings noble for Lang, uplifting the human spirit. The ending almost reads like a modern sound bite, the weeping mother at the end who, dissatisfied with the outcome of justice, says, "This won't bring our children back." Five years prior, Lang directed the classic silent Metropolis, which was reputed to be Hitler's favorite film. That film script was co-written by novelist Thea von Harbou, Lang's longtime collaborator and wife, who also co-wrote M. After Hitler's takeover, von Harbou, a Nazi sympathizer, became a prolific screenwriter for the Third Reich, while Lang ended up fleeing the country in 1933.