Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M is considered by many to be a classic example of film noir. It’s made it into a few top 100 lists (including being #50 on IMDb), and is cited as being a major influence on both the genre and films in general. It was filmed in German, but the Criterion Collection has released a version with deftly-translated subtitles; when I had the opportunity to see that version, I decided to do so.
The film is inspired by various serial killers around Germany at the time that Lang was writing it. It stars Peter Lorre as a disturbed man who has become a serial child killer in a German city, and Lorre’s performance is exceptionally creepy, especially with Lang adding in one of the first leitmotifs in film history, with the killer (actually Lang dubbed in) whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King” whenever he is taken by his compulsion to stalk, kidnap, and murder children.
Because “In the Hall of the Mountain King” wasn’t already creepy enough on its own.
The identity of the killer is known to the audience immediately; this isn’t a murder mystery, exactly. It’s more about how the killings affect the town, and what is eventually done about them. The police, under Kommissar Karl Lohman (Otto Wernicke), have been investigating for several months, to no avail. The killer leaves behind no clues. Townsfolk who used to let their children walk to school and home again by themselves are becoming increasingly paranoid, even in defense of other peoples’ children. An elderly gentleman is nearly beaten to death simply for answering a child’s question on what time it is. There is talk of having the police go into every citizen’s home to search for clues, and the police enact nightly raids on the sections of town populated by the criminal element.
It is that which brings in the second major element of the plot. The criminals find their livelihoods disrupted by the frequent police interference — and they’re certain the killer isn’t among them. They may be con artists, thieves, and robbers, but even they are disgusted by the child killer. At a meeting by the heads of various criminal groups, they argue about what to do about the situation. If the killer isn’t caught, they won’t be able to maintain their criminal empires because of the constant state of alert. The head safecracker (Gustaf Gründgens) comes upon the solution: set a crook to catch a crook. If the police can’t catch the killer, then it’s up to the criminals. They use the beggars guild to post a continuous watch in every part of town, to keep an eye on every child and ensure that the next time the killer strikes, they’ll be ready for him.
It says a lot about the state of the city that a group of beggars observing and following all the children doesn’t garner any attention.
It’s difficult to evaluate the dialogue on a foreign-language film, but the translated text flows smoothly and makes for a coherent dialogue and narrative. And the actors all turn in solid performances; even though I may not be able to understand exactly what they’re saying without the subtitles, their tone and delivery carries the meaning through. Unlike some subtitled films where one feels like one is reading a story while a movie goes on in the background, here the mental tone evoked by the translated text matches up perfectly with the spoken dialogue, making the whole process feel smoother. Wernicke fits his role as the beleaguered chief inspector well, and is assisted in his performance by a similarly strong performance from Theodor Loos as another inspector. Friedrich Gnaß plays a hapless burglar caught and interrogated by the police, and gives a perfect delivery as someone in way over his head. Gründgens is cold and calculating as Safecracker, and it contrasts well with the Rudolf Blümner as the killer’s “defense attorney” in the trial the criminals hold; Blümner’s character makes a genuine attempt to acquit the defendant, and is assisted by the fact that Peter Lorre manages to make even a child killer seem somehow pitiful… at least until one is reminded that, arguments about compulsive insanity or not, he’s still a murderer of children. Lorre balances sinister, creepy, and sad all in one complicated little role.
The film is mostly a talkie, but there are a few scenes where the film is deliberately devoid of any sound at all. Most of these work to heighten the dramatic tension, but there was one where it just seemed out of place. The scene of the police storming the criminal districts in total silence just didn’t work for me; the ears expect noise there. By contrast, the initial reveal of the criminal tribunal works perfectly well with total silence. It’s striking, cold and austere, with both a sense of sinister menace and looming judgment. The film also ends rather abruptly, too abruptly for my tastes, and the final line is a bit of a clunker in its heavy-handedness. If I gave out half-stars, these flaws would be enough to drop M by that amount; as it is, though, I don’t, and I don’t feel that they merit dropping it by a full star. It’s still a masterful work of cinema.