M – Eine Stadt Sucht einen Mörder (M – A City Looks for a Murderer) was released 11 May 1931, and is widely regarded as one of Fritz Lang’s very best. Hr. Lang himself considered it his greatest film. Like many folks who waited a few years to make their first talkies, Hr. Lang too ended up with a much better product than those who jumped right in to play with the shiny new toy. This film uses sound and silence in just the right way.
Many early talkies are notoriously creaky, stilted, and overly stagey, with way too much constant dialogue (including many embarrassing “As you know, Bob” lines). M, however, doesn’t suffer from such problems. There are several scenes where everything goes quiet, and the sound returns as the drama hits. There are also moments when sound effects carry the job of dialogue.
In short, it’s the kind of film that wouldn’t have worked very well as a silent. The advent of sound made possible stories which rely upon a lot of dialogue and can’t be entirely conveyed through body language and well-chosen intertitles.
This film was Peter Lorre (né László Löwenstein)’s starring début and his big breakthrough role. Prior to this, he’d mostly done comedic roles, but as a result of playing a child-murderer, he was typecast as a villain for a very long time after this. Fritz Lang had him in mind while writing the script, and didn’t bother with a screen test, so convinced Lorre would be perfect for the role.
Lorre’s acting is a bit reminiscent of silent cinema, and stage acting, what with all his great body language and facial expressions. This is particularly a good fit for the role because he doesn’t immediately speak, and doesn’t begin regularly speaking until probably over halfway through the film.
Thankfully, Lorre (who was Jewish) was one of the relative few who saw the writing on the wall and got the hell out of Germany in 1933. Director Lang also fled Germany in 1933. Though Lang was baptised Catholic and took his faith very seriously, he was also halachically Jewish, since his mother was Jewish by birth. I’m really proud he was a member of the tribe, even if he never did anything with his roots.
M was one of the earliest sound films to use a leitmotif, the association between a character and a piece of music. Murderer Hans Beckert frequently whistles “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” so much so we know to expect him to soon appear when we hear that tune. However, Lorre couldn’t whistle in real life, so Lang’s then-wife (and co-writer) Thea von Harbou did the whistling.
When Lang placed a newspaper ad about his new film in 1930, he got a lot of threatening letters, and Staaken Studios refused to provide space for filming. When Lang asked the head of the studio why, the fellow admitted to being a member of the Nazi Party, and said the party believed the film was supposed to depict Nazis. They finally relented when the actual plot was explained.
Though the film isn’t explicitly about Nazis or totalitarianism, it’s easy to see parallels. It’s just like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, exploring themes of blindly following authority and the crowd, rushing to judgment, powerful leaders, criminal goings-on, and who the real criminals are. As I discussed in my Caligari posts last October, the authoritarian, totalitarian streak runs deep in German history, culture, and society, and didn’t just appear out of nowhere with the advent of the Nazis.
I’m super-proud to be over half German (on both sides of my family), but I have to be honest and admit Germans aren’t exactly known for being free-thinkers, laid-back, or radical reformers. Those aspects of my personality definitely don’t come from the German branches of my family tree!
“This time, I really am innocent.”
As part of his research for the film, Lang spent eight days in a mental hospital and met several child-murderers. Though it was widely reported the film was based on the story of Peter Kürten (one of the murderers whom Lang met), it’s drawn from many different sources and all expertly woven together. Several real criminals served as extras.
During shooting, 25 cast members were arrested.
Like many films from this era, M too was later redone as an English-language version. Subtitled films weren’t very popular, so actors either went back and did the films with their lines in other languages (which they usually didn’t understand), or native speakers were dubbed over the original actors.
In addition to a dubbed version, M was also later partially reshot in various languages. The English version from 1932 was Lorre’s very first English-speaking role. Though Lorre did speak French, the French version was dubbed with another actor.
A Hollywood remake was shot in 1951, set in L.A. instead of Berlin, and with a killer renamed Martin W. Harrow.