Fritz Lang is one of those names that pops up quite frequently in the history of film, but it always seems that everyone is completely baffled on who Lang really was. Being an avid liar during interviews as well as being notoriously awful to his actors and the crew, it can’t really be denied that, as a person, Fritz Lang sucked the big one. The same can’t really be said about his work as a film maker, however, being one of the most influential of the early directors. I’ve already covered Metropolis on this blog, but now let’s look at his first sound feature, and what many call his masterpiece, M.
After little Elsie Beckmann is kidnapped and murdered on her way home from school, the entire city of Berlin is put on alert to watch their children and keep their eyes open for this killer that has escaped the law once before. This killer is Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a meticulously evil man who has his eyes one every little girl in the city. The investigation, led by Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), has been unsuccessful in almost every regard, even after numerous raids on crime dens in the city’s underworld. Soon, the criminals of the city begin to fight back against the murderer, after the heavy police activity has disrupted their own business. A man only known as the Safecracker (Gustaf Gründgens) organizes an army of beggars to being a patrol of their own.
Much like Metropolis, this film is also ahead of its time, and helped pave the way for psychological thrillers yet to come. The topic of child murderers wasn’t a big trend at this time in movie history, and I can’t say that I’ve seen a movie before this one was released that deals so heavily with the topic. MGM studio executive Irving Thalberg was especially affected by M, even though he admitted that if he didn’t know any better, he never would have agreed to the project. Still, he showed this film to all of his newly hired directors and writers as a point of reference for the kind of work that they should all be doing. This makes sense because everything from the acting to the writing to the cinematography work very well in unison, and especially Lang’s use of sound helped give this early talkie a special kind of touch.
Film noir wasn’t really considered a style back in 1931, although you could see elements that would be essential in some films of this time. M is one of those movies that obviously was a huge inspiration to film noir film makers of the forties and fifties. Shadows from buildings make stark shapes on empty streets in the dead of night, and silhouetted characters make certain scenes even more suspenseful. Sound like some of the best noir movies out there. The way the city at night is also very German, with some of the shadowy shapes hearkening back to the days of Expressionism. Sound and music are also very important in M. This was the first film to actually equate a song (In the Hall of the Mountain King) with a character (Peter Lorre’s character). It was done before in opera, but now made the jump to film with this movie. Some scenes are also eerily quiet which was done to save money, but Lang also said it gave scenes of terror more suspense, which is true.
This film has had a very unique history. Being released a few years before the Nazi party officially took power, Lang was uninhibited by certain censorial procedures that would’ve been in place. Joseph Goebbels, himself, even stated that M was a remarkable film, but would later go on to use it in propaganda against the Jews, leaving both Lorre and Lang to flee to America. It was kept locked away for many years, but was found once again, only with many frames damaged. The film was even cut down to a much shorter run time which pretty much bastardized Lang’s original vision. It’s only been recently that M has been restored to the closest its ever been to the original version. Only one scene is known to be missing, but all of the damaged frames and aspect ratios have all been fixed.
M is truly and amazing movie and without question Fritz Lang’s masterpiece. It isn’t just a masterpiece for Lang, but one for the entire genre of psychological thrillers. The themes were new and controversial, while the acting, cinematography, and set design were all fantastic. While it did inspire many film makers of the future and even help shape film noir, M is a movie that stands alone as just a fantastic piece of work that will stay in your mind forever, and quite frankly, as perfect a movie as you will get.