M is one of those movies that I can’t believe was even made, but not in the usual, Tyler Perry kind of way. I mean it in the way that this is a movie made around 1930 in Germany about a child molester/murderer. And it is CRAZY.
Something that bothers me in certain old movies is what’s left unspoken; usually it seems to be a direct result of censorship, but either way it sort of drives me crazy to watch a movie where we’re supposed to assume stuff that happens off-screen. M both follows this and bucks this; no, it doesn’t show Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) molesting or killing children, but it also flat-out says that’s what he’s doing, just in case there’s any doubt. Basically, I just love that Lang was able to let us know what’s going on but still keep the feel of a movie from that era.
The plot is really simple: Beckert has been abducting and murdering children around Berlin. The most we see of any crime is Beckert approaching a little girl, in shadow, buying that little girl a balloon and candy, and then later we see the ball she was playing with roll out from under a bush and the same balloon float up and hit a power line. The bulk of the movie is how the city reacts to these crimes and how everyone is on the hunt for him, even though no one knows what to look for. The police use fascinating (to me) techniques with fingerprints and handwriting analysis (Beckert sends the press a letter, not as himself, admitting to the crimes and promising he will commit them again) but they don’t get anywhere. Meanwhile, the Berlin mob and the rest of the criminal community is getting sick of the nightly raids the cops are holding trying to find the killer and being accused themselves of being the killer. The mob’s irritation with the killer is so interesting; they obviously think he’s evil and shouldn’t kill children. But what really drives them is that they don’t want to be lumped into the same category just because they’re also criminals, and the fact that they can’t really do criminal stuff with all the cop activity. It might not be 100% moral, but the mob is convinced that they’ll do a better job of catching the killer than the cops, and they’re right.
There’s a lot of really interesting stuff going on all the time, I think the most important being the incredible acting of Peter Lorre. Eventually, the criminals end up catching Beckert and give him a mock trial. Beckert pleads with his captors, explaining that he has to kill, that the only time he’s not in total torment is when he’s killing, and I have to say Lorre is pretty fucking convincing. He looks like he’s in pain, the way he holds himself and looks terrified of the criminals that have caught him and looks around at them so desperately. But then you remember that, wait, Beckert raped and murdered children and went out of his way to both taunt and elude the police. I love that M is all about Beckert being a killer but Lorre is somehow able to make you forget about that, even if for just a few seconds, and empathize with him a little. It’s crazy.
Lang is also really good at building tension in M. To help capture the killer, the mob recruits the homeless of Berlin to act as watchdogs over the city’s children, following any lone child until they see that the child is safe. Eventually this works, when the blind balloon salesman who sold Beckert his victim’s balloon in the beginning recognizes Beckert’s whistling of “In The Hall of the Mountain King,” which he whistled when he first bought the balloon. The salesman alerts another beggar, who follows Beckert, as he has another child, a soon-to-be-victim in tow. It’s nerve-racking watching Beckert get followed; as he moves through the crowded city it seems sure that he’ll get lost. But then the beggar writes a giant M on his hand in chalk and pretends to run into Beckert, slamming his hand on Beckert’s coat in the process and marking the back of his shoulder with an M. It’s just kind of brilliant, and once Beckert’s victim alerts him to the mark it just gets that much more tense and crazy.
M is a movie that I’m embarrassed it took me so long to see. I was honestly kind of scared to watch it; despite the time period, I thought Metropolis was super scary when I saw it in middle school and that movie is not about a child killer. But it’s really incredible and the scariest parts are feeling empathy for the killer. The restoration of M is also such a good example of why the Criterion Collection is so amazing and important.
M is amazing.
When I think of my history with film the Criterion Collection is a big part of that. From that I remember the first CC I saw was 8 1/2. A kid at my high school had recommended it and even though I wasn’t a huge fan it certainly opened my eyes to what film could be. After I watched 8 1/2 I was at Best Buy with my mom and I remember noticing other CC movies around the store. The first one I picked up was La Dolce Vita. I grabbed it wanting to buy it before I even knew what it was about. The second film, my mom noticed, was M. The cover immediately sold me as well. I went home and watched La Dolce Vita with my mom. We both loved it and it sparked some interesting conversation about what we had actually watched. However, when I saw M for the first time, I think my love for movies really took off. I don’t think I had ever watched anything that was so captivating about such a scary subject. Everything jumped out at me. The writing, the cinematography, even the acting.
M is about a German town coming to a halt to find a child murderer. It’s crazy to think about how this movie was even made. And I think it’s interesting that it’s Fritz Lang’s first movie with sound. You can definitely tell. There are quite a few moments when there is no sound at all. I remember watching this with my dad at about 1 in the morning once and trying my best to stay awake because of the constant silence.
I love this movie and I think if you love film at all it’s worth watching. I can’t really think of anything I don’t like about it.