FRITZ LANG’S ‘M.’ (1931) DIRECTED BY FRITZ LANG. SCREENPLAY BY FRITZ LANG AND THEA VON HARBOU. STARRING PETER LORRE AND OTTO WERNICKE.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘10,000 marks reward.
Believed to have been murdered.
Age 6-a-half years. Fair hair. Brown eyes. About 3 ft 4 in height. Last seen outside the Barclay School For Infants on April 14th at about ten minutes past twelve.
Any person able to supply information, please communicate with
Chief of police or any police station.’
People are always calling ‘M’ Fritz Lang’s masterpiece. I love this film very much but I just want to point out that Fritz Lang’s ‘METROPOLIS’ exists too and might be an even better candidate for the title of this director’s actual masterpiece.
That’s not to say that ‘M,’ possibly the earliest film ever made on the disturbing and grisly subject of child murder and Fritz Lang’s first ever talkie, isn’t a masterpiece. It is, it absolutely is. But the guy can have two masterpieces, can’t he…? That’s all I’m saying, lol.
People usually think that the film is based on the murderous career of serial killer Peter Kurten, the so-called ‘Vampire of Dusseldorf,’ but Fritz Lang himself points out that Kurten was never an admitted child killer and also that the script for ‘M’ was already done and dusted before Kurten was ever apprehended. But serial killers did already exist back then, so it’s certainly more than possible that they gave Lang his idea for the film.
The German city in the film is a city living in terrible fear when the movie starts. A spate of child murders have the inhabitants on the edge of their seats, worrying themselves sick about their kiddies who are every day at risk from becoming the next murder statistic until this fellow is caught. And what won’t they do to the bastard when he is…! Temperatures run very, very high in the city at the moment.
In fact, the movie starts with a murder. Pretty, lively little Elsa Beckmann, the daughter of an impoverished and exhausted washerwoman, is cajoled away from her life by a man whose distinctive profile we first see against the background of one of the ‘WANTED! MURDERER!’ posters. It’s an effective introduction for the man the whole city is just longing to meet.
The images that imply Elsie’s death at the hands of this man, who jauntily whistles the theme from Grieg’s PEER GYNT while he lures the child casually away (his signature?), are stunning in their simplicity.
Her ball rolls away into a patch of wasteland; her new balloon is caught in some telegraph wires and flaps helplessly in the breeze. Two simple but strikingly powerful images, and pretty little Elsie Beckmann is lost to the world of man forever.
The whole city is up in arms. The police are working flat out to catch the killer. This is a good thing, right? Well, not, apparently, for certain elements of the city’s criminal fraternity.
They can’t take a step now without being caught up in a police raid to catch the child murderer. The constant police presence across the city is interfering big-time with their criminal activities. If this keeps up, they’ll be on the breadline, grumble grumble grumble. Ya gotta feel sorry for them.
A group of burglars and safecrackers, headed by a man who couldn’t look more like a Nazi if he tried, in his belted overcoat, hat, black gloves and stick (for whopping things…!), decide to catch the killer themselves and thereby loosen the coppers’ grip on the collar of the city’s criminal underbelly. Then they can go about their unlawful business in peace and quiet once more without the bleedin’ fuzz breathing down their necks all the livelong day.
The funny thing about all this is that the leader of this group, the guy in the Nazi overcoat (incidentally played by an actor who went on to have a rather succesful career under Nazi rule, so we’re not too far out), is wanted by the police on three separate counts of manslaughter.
But because the victims are presumably only adult males who got in the way of his criminal enterprises, then that’s totally okay, see? They weren’t little children. This gives us an idea of the special place reserved in hell (and in the minds of their peers) for the people who do harm to children.
The criminals, with the aid of the city’s population of beggars and down-and-outs, do actually manage to catch the murderer. They haul him in front of a secret kangaroo court consisting of criminals and their pals and there’s very much a feeling that these could tear the child murderer to shreds like wolves, if their leader so much as gives them the signal.
The man chosen to ‘defend’ the murderer brings up some very good points about the notion of capital punishment, the penalty for murder in those days. Should a man be penalised, he argues eloquently after a heartfelt speech from the murderer, if he has no control over his actions and is therefore not responsible for them? The kangaroo court are sceptical. They’re all for execution, and the sooner the better.
The counsel for the defence begs that the murderer be turned over to the police for justice to take place in a civilised fashion, rather than let him be subject to mob justice. We, the viewers, all probably know at this point that the murderer, rather than being summarily hanged or guillotined or shot by a firing squad, needs to be taken into protective custody, preferably in a mental hospital, and there analysed and given whatever treatment, if any, was available to the paedophiles of the day. The mob, however, might have other ideas…
Peter Lorre is brilliant here as You-Know-Who. His eyes are so big and expressive! He did an English language version of the film too, a version which up until only fairly recently was considered lost, and here he gives his first ever English-speaking performance in any movie ever. This makes it a very exciting discovery indeed for Peter Lorre aficionados.
The English language version of the film is a full twenty minutes shorter than the original German version, however, so for this reason I much prefer the German version with English subtitles. The two films have different, though similar, endings, if you get me, and the better ending of the two is in the German version, in my humble opinion.
The film really brings home to the viewer the vulnerability of children, the fact that they can be lured away from their parents, their friends, their homes, their schools and their very lives by an apple, a balloon, a piece of candy.
The kiddies in the film seem particularly impoverished, if Elsie Beckmann’s home and (I’m guessing) overworked single mother are anything to go by, so all the killer has to do is flash a toy or a few sweets to get the child to follow him anywhere he wants.
The spoilt brats of today with all their fabulous, expensive technology might be a little harder to lure away. You’d almost certainly have to be technology-savvy and offering something rather exceptional to get them to glance up, bored, from their iPads.
‘M’ is a truly haunting film. The lovely lost children, the terror of the murderer when faced with the kangaroo court, and the desolation of the downtrodden, impoverished mothers who’ve each lost children in this sinister way all combine to give us some genuinely disturbing images and memories that we won’t forget in a hurry. I can’t say exactly that you’ll enjoy the film, purely because of the grisly nature of the subject matter, but you’ll definitely remember it anyway.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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