M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder Director: Fritz Lang (1931)
M – “A City looks for a Murderer” is a marvelous work of cinematic genius, cementing Fritz Lang as the “master of darkness.” It was his first sound film and the screenplay was written by Mr. Lang along with his wife. Throughout his life, Mr. Lang believed M to be his masterpiece. Indeed M is a masterpiece loaded with experimental sound, and expert editing leading to a heightened experience of drama. It also leaves the audience stunned and horrified, while displaying no graphic scenes of children being murdered. As in a Greek tragedy, all the true horror occurs offstage and in the imagination of the audience.
Before shooting the film, Lang announced its controversial subject matter in a newspaper advertisement causing a heated uproar. He eventually made the film through Nero Studios, rather than UFA due to suspicions of Nazi involvement. In order to research the subject matter of M, Lang spent eight days in a mental institution and spoke with several convicted child killers -he eventually included criminals as extras on the set.
The film tells the story of a German town plagued by child killer. The police and the citizens rapidly grow desperate as six young children disappear. They begin to accuse anyone who associates with children of being the killer. It is a tale of paranoia The police decide to increase their presence in the city, forcing the crime bosses to go underground. Frustrated, they devise a plan to catch the child murderer so they may return to practicing their illicit businesses.
One man spots the killer, played by the great Peter Lorre in his first major role, with a young girl -his next victim. The man bumps into the killer and deliberately leaves a chalky imprint of the letter “M” on his jacket, for murderer. However, the audience is already well familiar with the killer by his unusual, strange shadows cast, and ominous whistling of “In the Hall of the King” from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite no. 1 (actually whistled by Lang’s wife rather than Lorre who actually could not whistle).
The gang then tails him into the train station and infiltrates by taking over the entire station. They catch the murderer, and bring him back to the abandoned warehouse, where they pose a fascinating trial in which a discussion of criminality versus mental health ensues. Just as the crowds close in on the killer, the police arrive, tipped off by a lone straggler at the train station, and bring him to trial by common law. The film closes with weeping mothers lamenting the fact that the outcome of the trial will not revive their children. The closing lines are: “One has to keep closer watch over the children,” and as the screen goes black, she says, “All of you.”