What is the most heinous crime that you can think of? There are plenty to choose, unfortunately, but I think most of us can agree that any wrongful act committed against a child is the worst sin of all. Murder mysteries are an ageless genre of storytelling, most notably from the legend herself, Agatha Christie. Finding the killer often drives these stories along with the means to apprehend the culprit, and 1931’s M is certainly a must-see for die hard cinephiles. Fritz Lang’s absorbing and encompassing thriller is magnificent to say the least but it does beg one question- how is a film from 1931 so impactful to the murder/mystery genre?
We begin M’s story in Germany, although no town or city is mentioned by name. A group of school children are playing outside and are singing a song. At first, everything sounds just about normal until you pay attention to the children’s lyrics, referencing someone who is taking away the children of their town and who are never seen again. Someone is in fact, murdering young children and no one is sure who the culprit could be. It’s every parents worst nightmare: the fear of your child never returning home.
We see this clearly when a woman in an apartment building overlooking the courtyard is awaiting for her daughter to return home from school. Soon the minutes tick by, then an hour and eventually evening settles in, but still her daughter has not come home. People in this town have read the papers and are aware that something is afoot. A murderer prowls the streets and children appear to vanish without a trace.
The police have their hands full at following leads and interviewing witnesses, but still after many months, no suspects have been named and not a single arrest has been made. What’s fascinating is how the movie takes us from one scene to the next as the police canvas the streets, study the crime scene from which the murdered child was found, and even focus on the little clues that are obtained and attempt to deduce their location. Most of these scenes are discussed via voice-over narration as the audiences watch the police work, something we are used to today, but groundbreaking for its time in cinema.
Even though we see the crime scenes being investigated and a little girl approached by a mysterious man, we don’t see anything happen after that. It’s all up to the audience’s imagination, which is more terrifying than seeing any onscreen violence. Considering that this film released in 1931, there was little violence shown whatsoever. The investigation gains so much attention that even the organized underworld criminals become involved. The culprit is hurting their businesses and now the police are intervening by staging raids on the criminal’s respective places of congregation.
The police get a lead on a man named Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) and investigate the apartment he resides in, while the criminal underworld hire beggars to watch the children in the event the murderer should approach one of them. It’s fascinating to see two different sides of law working together towards a single cause. Each party operates differently but the end result is the same, despite their motives being on opposite ends. I’ll leave you there with the plot but when everything concludes, it’ll take your breath away.
Fritz Lang, along with this wife Thea von Harbou, wrote the script for M together. Their previous and most famous work was the 1927 silent sci-fi epic Metropolis, which is one of my favorite films of all time. Together, they created a story that feels completely plausible and, sad to say, has happened a lot throughout history. The research that went into this script is also very intelligent, from how the police operate to the gathering of evidence to the crafting of the killer himself. Everything in this film feels like something you’d watch in a true-crime documentary of today.
According to some of the production notes, Lang spent eight days inside a mental institution in Germany and met some real-life criminals, including the infamous Peter Kurten- also known as the Vampire of Dusseldorf. There was speculation that Hans Beckert was inspired by the crimes that Kurten had committed, something which Lang denied for many years. Even though Peter Lorre is remembered as a comedic actor, his performance as Hans lead some people to think he was an actual child murderer. This would haunt him for the remainder of his life unfortunately, but it proves just how good of an actor Lorre was on the big screen.
In the movie, two other infamous German serial killers are mentioned by name -Haarmann and Grossmann. However, M is careful to only briefly mention their names without detailing who these men were or what they did. Likewise, the character of Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) was based off Ernst Gennat, a successful criminologist in the German Reich who did work on the cases of Kurten and Haarmann, and displays an equally powerful presence throughout the movie.
Lang’s First Sound Picture
Up until this time, Fritz Lang was a silent film director, and while M marked a transition into the talkies, he took a different approach to filmmaking. Not only did Lang add narration to his film, but he also dabbled in off-camera sounds, such as using the killer’s whistle to let audience deduce his identity from the song choice. Certain scenes have sound in them while others don’t, which seems like a creative choice but, in reality, was due to sound being quite expensive to record. Yet this also adds something unique to the film, as it feels as if we are holding our breath waiting for something to happen. A sudden burst of sound can emerge from nowhere and frighten us without warning. It may be the result of cost, but as Lang himself later admitted, this also adds a level of tension to the movie.
I love silent movie myself because it requires the audience to pay close attention to what’s happening in front of them. With the addition of sound, however, M does a lot right in ways to give his movie a dialectally chilling effect, especially the final monologue by Lorre that’s guaranteed to make anyone shiver.
Everyone loves a good mystery. Who is the murderer? Will they catch him? These are all things that I grew up thinking while reading Agatha Christie stories. In M we are taken to a world where ideas collide but for a common purpose. The police want to stop the murderer while the criminals want to stop him from killing, albeit so their businesses can run smoothly. Peter Lorre is fantastic as Hans Beckert but equally tense are the lengths that people will go to capture him for what they view as justice.
Outside of murderers, M inspired countless TV shows, movies and books that delve into catching the people who keep us up at night. From CSI, Law and Order, to even David Fincher’s Zodiac and Se7en- two of my favorite murder/mystery movies- I have to give high credit to M for leading the way in crafting such a tense story. While M may not be the most entertaining movie for some, it does intrigue the mind and inspire the detective in some of us. Lang considered M to be his magnum opus and I agree that it’s a masterpiece. For anyone who loves the murder/mystery genre in true-crime or fiction, add this one to your list of movies to watch. Its final spoken words alone leave an impression make M truly unforgettable.