As Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M begins, children are seen playing a game related to a child killer. The mothers are concerned, but grateful that at least their kids are still alive. Then one little girl walks Berlin’s streets, bouncing a ball. Then a man’s shadow is seen, and a mother cries out her daughter’s name – and everything changes in an instant.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 80 years since M’s original release, and like Lang’s other masterpiece Metropolis, it’s a film whose themes and impact are still powerful today. The murder of a child (by either a parent or a stranger) is still an extremely emotional situation – the murders of Caylee Anthony and JonBenet Ramsey come to mind. And here’s one more interesting idea: the fact that Lang was able to make this film before Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party took over is another remarkable feat.
After the disappearance and murder of Elsie Beckmann, it’s obvious the man who was with her is the same man who may be responsible for the deaths of 8 other children. Yet this man taunts the police, telling him to catch him, vowing to continue his death spree until he goes down. The city of Berlin goes into a frenzy, even accusing other men of the children’s murders. Yet who is this man who seems to enjoy this sadistic act? 15 minutes into the film, his face is seen – his name, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre).
Yet the police don’t catch on – they search all over for him, facing criticism and scorn from the citizens at every turn. Soon, they won’t be the only group looking to get Beckert off the streets. Some of Berlin’s low-level criminals (pimps, pickpockets, etc.) decide to get involved in the search. Yet between the law and the lawless, who will find Beckert first? And what will happen to him when he finally is caught? There’s no way the rest of the film can be explained – it has to be seen for itself.
Lang certainly paved the way for many filmmaking ideas with M. The dark, shadowy world of Berlin suggests film noir, a genre Lang himself would take part in during the 1940s and 1950s. Lang creates a world where the main characters aren’t totally sympathetic – Beckert is a monster, the police are seen as ineffective, and the criminals are seen as…well, criminals. No main character comes off looking like a saint in this film, and Lang made sure of that. It also somehow managed to combine two ideas that have become commonplace in worldwide cinema: the police drama and the killer thriller. These ideas seem to be everywhere on film and on TV these days, but Lang was the one to start it all in the modern storytelling sense.
Misn’t dominated acting-wise by one person, but by an entire ensemble cast – and they are effective in their performances. Yet Peter Lorre’s film career took off after this film, landing him in America for the next 30 years (the same fate as the man who directed him here). As Beckert, he is terrifying and yet haunting – he has one major speech near the film’s conclusion to explain his actions. It’s a complicated tightrope of emotional levity, but Lorre walks it brilliantly. Lang and screenwriter Thea von Harbou (also his then-wife) are also smart in not completely humanizing Beckert – the man is a killer, and he is accepted as such, with little to no room for emotional change.
For all of the technical and story-driven triumphs Lang pulled off in M, the most heart-breaking aspect of the film is made clear by film’s end – though it might have been realized much earlier. Berlin’s people – and the audience – ultimately realize that even if the killer is caught, it doesn’t change the fate of the children. While the killer may end up serving life or headed to an early death, at least he still had more time to live. The children he killed were deprived of more time. That is ultimately M’s lasting statement.