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Thursday, 25 March 2010

M (1931)

Director: Fritz Lang
Star: Peter Lorre



I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Fritz Lang's M was one of the films I most looked forward to from the IMDb Top 250 list. Quite apart from the high reputation of both the film and its director, it marked the first major role for one of my favourite actors, Peter Lorre. I've loved his offbeat style for years in acknowledged classics such as Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, late Roger Cormans like The Comedy of Terrors and The Raven, and lesser known gems like Mad Love and The Beast with Five Fingers. Over the last couple of years I've caught up with many neglected Lorre classics like Stranger on the Third Floor, The Verdict and Three Strangers and now that many of his films, not least the eight Mr Moto movies, are being made available on DVD it's going to be even easier to catch up with the rest. Lorre is always a distinctive and entertaining actor, but here he set the stage for all those offbeat roles by portraying a child murderer and presumably also a paedophile, the most universally despised of all criminals, whom all of Berlin is trying to catch.

His first appearance in M is as a shadow against a poster offering 10,000 marks for his capture, while he picks up his next victim, seducing her with a balloon he buys from a blind street vendor. We soon discover that he has already killed eight other children and young Elsie Beckman will make nine. The people of Berlin are terrified but can do little to help, outside of providing conflicting witnesses and mob hysteria. Driven by Insp Karl Lohmann, a character who would return for Lang's The Testament of Dr Mabuse in 1933, the police almost go without sleep as they expand their manhunt again and again but without success, though their constant raids net them a substantial number of other criminals.

This is ten years before 'Round up the usual suspects,' but that would be a highly appropriate line to have used. As the profitability of the underworld continues to suffer from these more and more frequent raids, the criminal fraternity decides to remove the incentive for them by using their own methods of discovery to find and deal with the murderer themselves before the police do. They have networks at their disposal who can go where the police cannot without ever seeming out of place, such as the Guild of Beggars, borrowed from Bertolt Brecht's The Beggar's Opera, who are as effectively invisible as children, who indeed are used in this vein in many children's detective stories.

It's obvious just how influential this 1931 German language film was on the entire subsequent history of cinema but I'm sure I still missed plenty of prescient reference points. Peter Lorre's character is abhorrent to everyone in the city and we see little of him during the first two thirds of the film, thus transplanting the formula for any good monster movie into a crime picture, this really being both. Rather than just having policemen run up and down aimlessly like Keystone Kops, we are given glimpses of crime scene work, almost seventy years before the CSI franchise. The murderer also writes a letter to the newspapers which the police analyse in various departments, presaging the similar but even more tense sequence in Manhunter.

Also while M starts like a silent film (or a Woody Allen movie) with simple unaccompanied titles and credits, it then proves that it has sound by giving it to us before we see any real visuals, in the form of children's voices singing a grisly song about the murderer, a precursor to the 'One, two, Freddy's coming for you' of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. There's also an early use of what's known as a leitmotif, the association of a piece of music with a character, something that was borrowed from opera and is now a routine device in cinema, though usually through cues in the soundtrack. We know when the murderer is nearby because we can hear him even though we can't see him. This use of sound stands out in M. It was Fritz Lang's first sound film, though he had already made such silent classics as Dr Mabuse the Gambler and Metropolis, which is also a Top 250 movie. Coming newly to sound, he chose to use it differently to most directors facing the same challenge.


There are similarities but also major differences to the Universal release of Frankenstein, for instance, which was also released in 1931. Neither Fritz Lang nor James Whale chose to use a backing score for their films, but instead Whale used what have become standard sound effects to make his action realistic. In comparison, there is very little of this in M, to the degree that some scenes are entirely silent, even when you'd expect to hear a lot of noise. Instead Lang uses sound either for dialogue or for specific effect. There's an incredible amount of whistling, for example, which has different purposes at different points of the film, but proves fundamental in the capture of the killer. At one point Lang even has the sound turn on and off depending on when a character clamps his hands over his ears.

These are only a couple of innovative techniques that I don't believe had been used before. Another is the way that Fritz Lang parallels discussions, such as when both the police and the underworld leaders, separately but with great similarity debate how to catch the murderer. Their motivations are different and their methods are different but the end result is precisely the same and so Lang alternates between the two discussions seamlessly making them seem as one. Lang even has characters in different places continue the same sentence as a means of segueing from one scene to the next, before passing back again like a game of tag. All this is time honoured comic book technique, as epitomised by Alan Moore in his masterpiece Watchmen, but M came half a century before.

Most impressive though is the role of Hans Beckert, both as created by Fritz Lang and his then wife Thea von Harbou (who co-wrote the script) and as portrayed by Peter Lorre. Unusually for films of any age about criminals, let alone criminals like this, the character carries with him a sense of both horror and pity, this monster being far from one dimensional. Supposedly based on a real serial killer from Germany called Peter Kürten, known as the Vampire of Düsseldorf, who was caught in 1930 and executed in 1931, Lang insisted that he was a fictional construct of many serial killers then or recently plaguing Germany, also including the cannibal killer Carl Großmann and possibly most reminiscent of Beckert, Fritz Haarmann, the Butcher of Hannover.

Beckert is sick, in both common usages of the word. Like Kürten, he preys upon young girls, seducing them with balloons and candy, marking him as a deliberate and dangerous pervert. We are not told so specifically, but we assume that he does far more to his victims than merely killing them. Certainly Kürten was a paedophile rapist as well as a child murderer and even indulged in bestiality and arson for sexual gratification, in fact the sexual component being more important to him than the deaths. Leaving such details to the imagination of the viewers may have been necessary to get past the film the censors but viewers at the time knew what was being suggested from what they read in the newspapers. Yet Beckert, like Haarmann, was also a former inmate of a mental institute, released from care by the authorities as supposedly cured. Haarmann had been indefinitely confined to a mental institution after an 1898 arrest for molesting children but escaped after six months and when rearrested in 1902 passed his psychiatric evaluation and was released.

Lang and von Harbou invented the character and crafted the framework through which he develops, but it's Peter Lorre who brings him to life. Obviously Beckert is still sick mentally, as we see his torment plainly on his face and through his actions, but not all the time as there are points where the dark side completely takes over and others where it fades to different degrees. He is driven to these crimes yet is horrified himself by them, and while we want him caught and stopped, we also find that we want him treated not lynched. He writes to the police not to brag, like Bonnie and Clyde, but in a plea to be stopped. Astoundingly, Lorre puts all this over to us mostly without the benefit of speech. He has a lot of screen time during the second half of the film but very few lines, leaving him free to use body language and sound to help us understand both sides of his character.


One particular masterclass moment shows the change between them. Beckert is innocently windowshopping and eating an apple when he sees the reflection of a young girl in a mirror in the shopfront. His entire body language changes as he internally fights his demons, and when he looks up he is not the man we previously saw. Now everything he does helps to build our insight of his tortured soul: his whistling (admittedly dubbed by Lang), the way he moves his hands or closes his eyes, the tone of his voice. It's truly one of the greatest acting performances I've ever seen and yet he rarely speaks! No wonder Lorre could sneak so much past the Hays Office with little visual tricks when playing gay characters like Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon or Ugarte in Casablanca, because he'd been doing precisely that sort of thing for a decade.

When he does speak it's in German, to be expected of a native German speaker in a German language film but of course I've only heard him speaking English elsewhere as most of his acting life was spent in Hollywood. Born László Löwenstein, he was Austro-Hungarian though his home town of Rózsahegy is now in Slovakia and called Ružomberok. While films like M brought him great success, Germany in the thirties was hardly a safe place for a Hungarian Jew so he emigrated after Hitler's rise to power in 1933, first to Paris, then to London where he learned English and featured in a couple of early Alfred Hitchcock films, the original The Man Who Knew Too Much and Secret Agent. He learned most of his lines phonetically, even bluffing his way through an interview with Hitch by laughing at what he felt were appropriate moments.

Lorre wasn't the only genius working on M. This entire attitude of inviting both horror and pity simultaneously marks M as being not just a masterpiece but a masterpiece well ahead of its time. I'm in awe of the talent of Fritz Lang to have made this film at all, but even more so that he made it in 1931. It isn't really the sort of film about a serial killer that we're used to, it's more a film about what a serial killer means to society. We don't see a single murder and we see more evil in the actions of others than in Beckert's own despicable deeds. Most tellingly, there are chilling similarities to more recent events, especially for me the vigilante incidents that followed the publication in the English tabloid The News of the World, of the names and addresses of all known sex offenders in the country. People and houses were attacked before it was realised that many of the names and addresses were out of date. One woman was even targeted because of a stupid assumption that 'paediatrician' meant 'paedophile'.

Such reactions could have come straight out of the script of this film, especially the powerful final sequence. After being marked with an M for murderer by a beggar, in obvious reference to the A for adulterer carried by Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Beckert changes from predator to prey. He is followed, cornered like a rat and finally captured by the criminal underground. He pours out his tortured soul in front of the kangaroo court that would try him, a very believable scene. Erich von Stroheim used to talk about how the audience always senses whether a prop is genuine or false so went to great lengths to ensure authenticity, even having Billy Wilder equip the 35mm Leica camera his character carried with him in Five Graves to Cairo with film even though it would never be used. Apparently Fritz Lang believed something similar, as this kangaroo court is apparently comprised of real criminals, cast for authenticity.

This confession scene is the powerhouse performance that made Lorre's career in films possible. After this he was in major demand, making eleven further German films by 1933 and was working for Hitchcock in three years and Hollywood in four. Bizarrely, as both Lang and Lorre were Jewish, this memorable scene was later used out of context by the Nazis to denigrate that religion in their notorious propaganda film, The Eternal Jew, Lorre's character even making it onto the film's poster. This choice is especially ironic as Lang originally had trouble obtaining studio space to make his film under its working title The Murderers are Among Us. The story goes that the studio owner was a Nazi and believed that the title referred to the Nazi party itself, probably accurately.

Perhaps that's the greatest power of M, in that while there's so much deliberate depth to be explored, once we start looking we find even more that was never there to begin with. It has the cinematic trifecta: it's a enjoyable film to watch, an amazing film to be stunned by and a deep film that makes us think. Perhaps the greatest film I've reviewed thus far from the IMDb Top 250, it was a serious achievement on the part of Fritz Lang to even make it. Irving Thalberg, the wünderkind of MGM, screened it in Hollywood for his writers and directors and told them that they should be making films of this power. The hilarious caveat is that he also admitted that if anyone had brought such a story to him, with the central figure a paedophile and child murderer, he'd have rejected it out of hand. It took a 1931 German movie to put the history of Hollywood into context.

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