Written by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang
Directed by Fritz Lang
The very first serial killer movie. Ever. Made only a few years after the introduction of sound itself, by a master of German Expressionism. What else do you need to know?
Okay, look at that date again, then at the country of origin. Germany, 1931. A time in which the Nazi Party was only beginning its stranglehold on Germany, and the knives were drawing near for "undesirables." A film with a Jewish star (Peter Lorre) who would escape to the US soon after the film's release. A film directed by a man (Fritz Lang) of half-Jewish ancestry, who would emigrate to the US two years later, after divorcing his wife, the co-writer of this film. The woman who would then join the National Socialist Party, and would eventually go on to make propaganda films for the Nazis. If ever there was film that achieved greatness purely on the basis of the time, place, and circumstances under which it was made, it is M.
Of course, none of this is stated explicitly in the film. The word "Nazi" is never used, and the film follows a plot that has little to do with politics in the traditional sense. No, the themes of M are buried, the meaning and ideas hidden within the technical brilliance and the thrilling plot. And a central performance by Lorre that merges the best acting of the silent era with the new psychological depth enabled by sound.
As the film opens, a rash of murders has gone unsolved for eight months -- the murders (and rapes, although that is not even implied in the movie) of several young girls, snatched away from their homes and bodies mutilated. We quickly learn that Lorre is the perpetrator of the murders, but the city remains unaware, parents in a blind panic over the disappearing children. Early on, a crowd gathers around a small man whose kindness towards a small child is misinterpreted, and he is nearly murdered before he can escape. Talk of the killings spreads all around the city, and the cops seem powerless to do anything about it. In the militaristic attitude of the day, the police have incredible powers of arrest and few rules placed upon them, but seem to twiddle their fingers barking up false leads and interrogating random drunks in raids of underground bars. They are meticulous but useless.
A gang of thugs, trying to figure out how to keep the cops from hassling them any longer, decides that they have to find the murderer themselves. They recruit beggars to patrol the streets looking for the right man, and offer a reward to the person who can deliver the killer. Their dragnet works, and eventually they capture Lorre and bring him for trial under their own particular breed of justice.
Lang was one of the great directors of the silent era, and with M he embraces sound in a masterful, almost playful way. While several sequences are silent or nearly so, Lang uses sound effects to build a world outside the screen, intercutting sequences with overlapping dialogue, and in general having the same kind of fun with the new technology that Darren Aronofsky would have with low-cost computer graphics seven decades later in Requiem for a Dream. His camerawork is dazzling, in particular his expressionistic framing in static shots and a handful of virtuoso camera moves, most particularly a long tracking shot in a poorhouse that rivals anything in the Scorsese canon.
Parts of this film are dated to modern eyes. Lorre's performance is full of the kind of silent-movie mugging that hasn't been en vogue for twice my lifetime, and Lang uses sped-up motion and other silent movie tricks to add action to certain sequences. The pacing is also a bit slower than we would expect today, particularly given the overall simplicity of the plot. But these are elements that can be forgiven even if they cannot be forgotten, and M deserved a look by anyone with an interest in the history of cinema.