© 2012 William Ahearn

The inspiration for “M” has been denied and confirmed by Fritz Lang – depending on the occasion – as the Vampire of Düsseldorf, who would become known as Peter Kürten when he was captured in 1929 after being turned in by his wife. Yet there are only two aspects of the Kürten case that apply to “M.” The first is that Kürten was a serial killer who also killed children and that the “underworld” of Düsseldorf had organized a group of beggars to help hunt the killer down. (An inspiration also used by Bertold Brecht in the play, The Three Penny Opera.) If Kürten was an inspiration it wasn’t a literal one and using that case as a reference point for understanding the meaning of “M” is more misleading than enlightening. What we do know is that the majority of the writing was performed by Thea von Harbou – to the shock of Lotte Eisner – and Lang himself has confirmed this, sometimes adding a biting “she went over to Nazis” as a coda. Outside of Germany, this is the film that confirmed Lang as a world-class director.

Variety, reviewing the film in Germany in 1931, stated: “An extraordinary, good, impressive and strong talker. Again fine work by Fritz Lang, and his wife and helper, Thea von Harbou. All the more astonishing as it is Lang's first talker.”

The Spectator in 1932 reported, “A film like ‘M’ is accordingly welcome on moral as well as aesthetic grounds, for here romance is allowed to add no riders to our verdict on the malefactor, and murder is dressed without apology in its own beastly colours. The result may be bad for your nerves, but it will do no harm to your principles.”

The New York Times, reviewing the film in 1933, wrote, “a strong cinematic work with remarkably fine acting, it is extraordinarily effective, but its narrative, which is concerned with a vague conception of the activities of a demented [slayer] and his final capture, is shocking and morbid. Yet Mr. Lang has left to the spectator's imagination the actual commission of the crimes.”

The New Republic in 1933 noted that “Not only is the film brilliantly directed, with a vast amount of that inspired type-casting at which the Germans are so good, but Peter Lorre acts the part of the insane murderer with great insight and inspired skill. [. . .] Hollywood will make better pictures after seeing this one.”

There is a story that Lang first told to Siegfried Kracauer – and echoed in Lotte Eisner’s biography of Lang – about how the film was initially titled “Murders Among Us” and that Nazi party members harassed the production because they thought the title referred to the Nazis. That story first appeared in 1947 and it probably made good copy in post-war Hollywood. The story relies on Thea von Harbou being the empty space she now occupies because with her in it the story makes no sense. Thea von Harbou was a well-known figure, especially in Berlin, and her novels bordered on nationalistic propaganda, according to some accounts, and she was already a Nazi sympathizer and also known as Lang’s writing partner. Since all of Lang’s previous films were apolitical – and Part I of “Die Nibelungen” and all of “Metropolis” were favorites of Hitler and Goebbels – why would Nazi party members suspect anything?

What makes “M” memorable and distinct from Lang’s other films is that the plot is so bare and direct. It stands alone among Lang’s German films – that many critics over the years had noted for their complex and sometimes unresolved plots – for its sheer simplicity. Thea von Harbou totally nailed the story and especially Hans Beckert’s speech at the kangaroo court and even Lotte Eisner mentions that it “excuses many of her faults of taste in other screen plays.”




There is another facet to the longevity of “M” (at least in the United States) and that is the presence of Peter Lorre – in his fourth film – as Hans Beckert. Lorre would go on to a long career in Hollywood and his appearances in “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca” embedded him in the firmament of Hollywood stars. Moviegoers in the US tend to go see known entities instead of foreign actors and with the exception of Marlene Dietrich, Lorre is arguably the most well known of the German émigrés actors who fled Germany and eventually ended up in Los Angeles. Otto Wernicke and Rudolf Klein-Rogge never rose to fame in the US and, consequently, fewer US audience members are interested in seeing their films whether Fritz Lang made them or not.

There are several aspects of Fritz Lang’s “M” that are always overlooked: The seeds of the police procedural genre and – as Kracauer noted about “Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler” – the lack of moral superiority on the part of the police, as well as the true genre of the film and how it continued an incredibly influential style that would show up in various parts of the world.

That crime films were becoming more sophisticated is the nature of the form and while Lang has stated that he wanted to make a “psychological” film involving a killer, the take-away from “M” is rarely seen as that. What is fascinating about Lang’s German films is that while there is always a struggle, Lang never takes sides and always lets the inevitable play out by letting the characters be whom they are as they clash with one another. It is never a question of morality, or redemption, and Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) never once exhibits any guilt or remorse. He has to do it.  He has no choice and those pursuing him – be they police or criminals – have no choice but to stop him.

“But I, I can’t help myself!” Beckert says in response to the charges by the kangaroo court, “I have no control over this! This evil thing inside me, the fire, the voices, the torment!... It’s there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently, but I can feel it there. It’s me, pursuing myself. I want to escape, to escape from myself. But it’s impossible. I can’t escape. I have to obey it. I have to run endless streets. I want to escape, to get away. And I’m pursued by ghosts. Ghosts of mothers. And of those children. They never leave me. They are there, always there. Always, except when I do it. When I . . . Then I can't remember anything.”

As with Dr Mabuse, the ghosts of victims haunt the character, and yet never is remorse or guilt part of the reaction. It is fear or horror that Mabuse and Beckert express as the basis of their reactions and it would be interesting to know whether this view of the criminal mind came from Lang, Thea von Harbou or is just indicative of the times although being “predictive” of the rise of the Nazis as Kracauer asserts in From Caligari To Hitler is now considered unsupportable. Hans Beckert may be the only character in a Fritz Lang film made in Germany that actually struggles against his fate, as there is an internal conflict in his character that is utterly absent in all of the others. Some fight for their lives while Beckert actually struggles with his soul.

What is also remarkable is that “M” contains no music other than Fritz Lang whistling Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King and an incidental organ grinder playing in one scene. As a film, it is quieter than his silent films that are always accompanied by constant music. Simplicity is the key to the film and there isn’t a bit of sensation film elements or a silly romance or a shot or scene that isn’t directly connected to the forward motion of the film.

There is not a single whiff of expressionism in the film and this is where not understanding what “M” represents in terms of German cinema of the 1930s – or at least an influential segment of it – leads to so many destructive assumptions. “M” is part of the New Realism or New Objectivity and it was a movement that took a hard and realistic look at Germany at the time. It contains the chiaroscuro effects common in most German films of the time and the dark and somber moody sets that seem to have begun with Max Reinhardt or even earlier Hollywood films. Siegfried Kracauer in From Caligari To Hitler describes it: “New Objectivity marks a state of paralysis. Cynicism, resignation, disillusionment: these tendencies point to a mentality disinclined to commit itself in any direction.” In The Films of Fritz Lang, Frederich Ott notes: “The New Objectivity – Germany’s reaction to the expressionist movement. Instead of zealous radicalism and optimism, hallmarks of expressionism, the New Objectivity emphasized despondency, cynicism and the abandonment of faith.”

What has happened over the years – as Lotte Eisner pointed out earlier – is that these images and styles of Weimar-era films are often erroneously described as expressionism and the issue was compounded by Paul Schrader’s Notes on Film Noir that described visual aspects common to Weimar-era cinema as “expressionism” and applied that style to post-war Hollywood crime films. This is clearest when Schrader describes Lang’s Mabuse films as “German Expressionism” where it is certain that they are not.

In some sense, Lang had always been leaning toward the New Objectivity in that his films had already “abandoned faith,” and were “disinclined to commit themselves in any direction.” It all gets summed up at the end of “M” – now that the original ending has been restored – as Lang told the authors of The Real Tinsel – “What ever you do to [Hans Beckert] is unimportant because it doesn’t bring dead children back to life.” That is a sentiment or point-of-view that is almost unique to the German films – all is still not right with the world, this will continue – and is the total opposite, in outlook, from the films that Lang would make in Hollywood.

Produced by Seymour Nebenzal for Nero Film. Directed by Fritz Lang. Written by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang. Cinematography by Fritz Arno Wagner. Starring Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut, Otto Wernicke and Theodor Loos, among others.                        

The Testament of Dr Mabuse


M (1931)