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Fritz Lang’s M (1931) is a cry for despair representing the dying moments of a free Germany before the reign of terror was concentrated under Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. The film’s secondary title was “a city searches for a murderer” thus, the claustrophobic city which Hans Beckertt (Peter Lorre) torments throughout the film seeking children to prey on was a reflection on the rapidly degenerating German society which was unfolding at the time. 

M carried its roots in a real-life child predator known at the time as “The Vampire of Dusseldorf”’ aka Peter Kurten, a serial killer from Dusseldorf during 1929. Fritz Lang’s then wife and screenwriting collaborator Thea Van Harbou (who also wrote Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis) concocted the story under the simple premise which Lang provided her: to think of the evilest crime. After their collaboration on M Harbou and Lang separated and she stayed in Germany, becoming a member of the Nazi party.

M marked the second last production that Lang would make in Germany before emigrating briefly to France and later to Hollywood for the rest of his life. On the subject of his displacement throughout his life Lang commented that, “I don’t belong to anyone.  And I don’t think that what I am or what I do is important; I think films are important,”1 highlighting the importance of cinema throughout his journey across the world for him.

Lang’s foray into sound was realised with the production of M and the film’s sophisticated mastery of music, diegetic sound and dialogue all function to heighten the spooky atmosphere displayed on screen. Beckert’s insistent whistling of the Edvard Grieg’s in the Hall of the Mountain King turns the grand tune into a death calling by the end of the film. The soundtrack and complex use of sound throughout the film isn’t the only component which makes the film rich in angst and tension. German film theorist and fellow American émigré Siegfried Kracauer would emphasise that, “Lang’s imaginative use of sound to intensify dread and terror is unparalleled in the history of the talkies,”2 highlighting the effect of Lang’s incorporation of sound.

Harbou’s script paints the killer from the beginning leaving the audience privy to his inner world, a recurring characteristic in recent films like Todd Phillips’ Joker and The Batman. However, Lang’s decision to remove explicit violence from the film allows the minds of the audience to explore their tortured imaginations. As Lang said in an interview, “I don’t show anything, any violence, and still the audience helps me and I don’t have to show them the horrible thing of how a child has been raped?”3

Lang’s film concerns itself with the depravity of society. At the time of production Germany was still relatively liberal as shown in the promotion of the radical Marxist theatre of Bertolt Brecht. However, Hitler’s predominance was growing as seen in the defiance of Sturmabteilung (SA) troops. Through the character of Beckertt Lang is able to ask whether cruel or maligned behaviour is shaped by society or the individual and to what extent each is responsible for the other. Thus the film posits a moral dilemma best evoked in Beckertt’s final monologue in which he begs the court to understand his point of view.

Through evocative shadow play, chiaroscuro lighting and tormented plotlines Lang and his German expressionist counterparts (Robert Weine, Paul Wegener) developed the film style later called “film noir” by French critics like Nino Frank due to the barrage of Hollywood film productions which were played in French theatres after World War Two. Peter Lorre would later be characterised as an icon of films like John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca. His casting in M was unconventional given his physical stature but Lang knew it would work. A friend of Lang’s and an actress, Celia Lovsky, provided him with the knowledge of Lorre whose performance in German playwright’s Marieluise Fleißer “Pioneers in Ingolstadt,” in which he “portrayed a sex maniac in the Austrian Army, might to some extent have inspired Lang”4 to cast him as Beckertt. 

After the production of M, Lang would produce one last movie in Germany called The Testament of Dr Mabuse. Ironically, after the release of Mabuse, then head of propaganda Joseph Goebbels wanted Lang to head the UFA (Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft) in Germany. The UFA was an integral part in distributing and producing content in Germany at the time. However, Lang sensed the imminent rise of the Nazis and declined the offer before fleeing to France.

M (1931 Germany 117 min)
Prod Co: Nero-Film AG Dir: Fritz Lang Scr: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang Phot: Fritz Arno Wagner Ed: Paul Falkenberg Prod Des: Emil Hasler, Karl Vollbrecht, Edgar G. Ulmer

Cast: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut, Otto Wernicke, Theodor Loos, Gustaf Gründgens, Friedrich Gnaß, Fritz Odemar, Paul Kemp, Theo Lingen

Endnotes

  1. Michael Gould and Lloyd Chesley, “Interview with Fritz Lang, Beverley Hills, August 12, 1972,” Mubi Notebook, Published December 24, 2018, https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/interview-with-fritz-lang-beverley-hills-august-12-1972
  2.   Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler (New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 220
  3. Gould and Chesley, “Interview with Fritz Lang.”
  4. Patrick McGilligan, Fritz Lang (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 148

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