When the police in a German city are unable to catch a child-murderer, other criminals join in the manhunt.
Having already created one of the screen's most sinister master criminals in Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), Fritz Lang turned again to crime for his debut with sound. Originally, he planned to explore the impact of a series of poison pen letters on tightly-knit community. But Lang and his screenwriter wife, Thea Von Harbou, were persuaded to change tack after reading about the exploits of Peter Kiirten, the serial killer known as the "Monster of Diisseldorf". Further inspired by the vigilante actions of the beggars' union in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's 1931 musical, The Threepenny Opera, the couple began studying the lurid press accounts of Kiirten's killings in order to gauge the public response to such heinous butchery. They also gained access to files at Scotland Yard and the Alexanderplatz police headquarters to discover how the law would pursue such a case, both from an investigative and forensic standpoint. Lang even visited asylums to interview and observe sex offenders to understand more clearly their motives, methods and madness.
Unable to make the picture for Germany's biggest studio, UFA, Lang signed to the less opulent Nero-Film, thus limiting the famously extravagant director to a six-week shoot between January and March of 1931. Fritz Arno Wagner, who had worked on such earlier Lang ventures as Destiny (1921) and Spies (1928), returned behind the camera to make ingenious use of brooding shadows and eerie low-key lighting, while Karl Vollbrecht who had helped create Metropolis (1927), teamed with EmilHasler to design the sets. Unfazed by their limited resources, they transformed a disused zeppelin hangar into the office block where the murderer is finally cornered and a ramshackle schnapps factory into the location for the kangaroo court.
Ever the fabulist, Lang fashioned the myth that the manager of the hangar was a Nazi, who had threatened to prevent filming unless the original title, Murderers Among Us, was ditched — just in case anyone mistook it for a reference to Fuehrer-in-waiting Adolf Hitler and his hordes. Lang also claimed he packed the underworld jury with real-life criminals and fooled police readying to raid the set by tinkering with the schedule in order to spirit them to safety.
What's more reliable is his insistence that the film carried an anti-death penalty message. "We force the one who throws the switch or pours the poison into the room to commit the same crime for which we kill another," he declared. "I don't think anybody has the right to kill anybody."
This goes some way to explaining his decision to make Hans Beckert such a surprisingly sympathetic character. Beckert may have murdered eight children, but by casting Peter Lorre in the role, Lang ensured that he could never be portrayed simply as a depraved monster. Twice, Lang allows us to witness Hans' torment, as he ducks into a street cafe to conquer the goading voices in his head and then again at his "trial" as he protests that other criminals act out of choice, whereas he has no control over his actions.
Despite the acclaim for his performance, Lorre never forgave Lang for his treatment on the set, particularly the need to throw him down some steps 12 times before he was satisfied with the take. Yet, Lang's sadism undoubtedly contributed to the haunted look of terror on Lorre's pudgy face as he confronts both his demons and his accusers. The performances of Gustaf Griindgens, as the sharply-dressed underworld boss Schraenker, and Otto Wernicke, as the corpulent Chief Inspector Lohmann, were also superb. But, as ever, Lang was less interested in acting than visual effect.
Considering it was his first talkie, he was sparing with sound effects, although he did make chilling use of the killer's whistled motif, The House Of The Mountain King from Grieg's Peer Gynt (which Lang performed himself, as no one else could get it so disturbingly off-key).
Instead, he concentrated on what amounted to silent set-pieces, most notably the opening montage segment in which little Elsie Beckmann is bought a balloon before being lured to her off-screen demise and the chase sequence that follows the chalked letter M being stamped upon Beckert's back by a member of the unholy alliance between the beggars and the underworld. Moreover, he also littered the action with close-ups of inert objects like documents, fingerprints, press cuttings, medical reports and scribbled notes to foreground the action's police procedural aspect.
With the public, press, police and politicians all blaming each other for the curse of Beckert's crimes, M presents a compelling portrait of a society on the verge of Nazi tyranny. But, viewed in the light of last summer's anti-paedophile hysteria, it's clear that it retains a contemporary resonance that's as controversial as it's powerful.
Visually brilliant, tautly executed, a masterpiece in the truest sense.