Movies that dare to make audiences uncomfortable with truth while simultaneously enriching audiences with a satisfying and entertaining story are few and far between. This film is one of the first - and best - to do those things.
Suspenseful, thrilling, and provocative. Initially, the ending disappointed me, until I realized the honesty of what it said about people and society.
Even though it's 85 years old, this movie still stands out today as a completely unique production.
While the police are shown at work with some early examples of forensics - fingerprints, handwriting analysis, and sifting through physical evidence in concentric circles around the crime scene - the overall picture of them is unflattering. In a very heavy-handed way they begin putting heat on the street and in pubs, asking for papers and rounding people up for little reason, motivating an organized crime ring to get involved to find the killer themselves and get things back to normal. The police and mob are barely distinguishable as they both discuss the matter over cigars and alcohol in separate meetings as Lang flips back and forth between them, and perhaps that's one of his larger points about Germany at the time. He does do a fantastic job at establishing a dark feel to the film throughout, and is brilliant when he cuts the sound a few times, letting the action speak for itself, which is heightened because of the darkness of it all.
Unfortunately the movie gets a little bogged down in its middle portion, when Lang could have shown us other sinister acts from Lorre or at built some type of backstory in his characters. Instead, he shows us the surveillance network of beggars and focuses too much on procedure. At one point we do see Lorre nearly salivating at the sight of a child's reflection in the window of a shop he's looking into, and at another, him trying to lure in his next victim, but he's simply not on-screen enough. I have to also say that when the mob have found him holed up in a building and don't just call the police instead painstakingly going through the rooms, it seems like a plot hole, since from their perspective all they need is to get the police off the streets.
The ultimate scene showing Lorre confronted by a mob intent on killing him after a mock trial redeems the film, however, and is riveting. The scene of Lorre seeing them all staring at him as Lang has the camera pan slowly from left to right is brilliant, as is his own statement in self-defense shortly afterward. We have an unruly mob confronting a child killer, where both sides are reprehensible. We feel for the mob when they voice their concern that he will simply serve a little time in a mental institution, then be back on the street again and kill again. Perhaps improbably, we even feel for Lorre, as he says he's sick, in what is one of the great scenes in film:
"But I can't help it! I can't ... I really can't ... help it! What would you know? What are you talking about? Who are you anyway? Who are you? All of you. Criminals. Probably proud of it too. Proud you can crack a safe or sneak into houses or cheat at cards. All of which it seems to me you could just as easily give up if you had learned something useful, or if you had jobs, or if you weren't such lazy pigs. But me? Can I do anything about it? Don't I have this cursed thing inside me? This fire, this voice, this agony? I have to roam the streets endlessly, always sensing that someone's following me. It's me! I'm shadowing myself! Silently...but I still hear it! Yes, sometimes I feel like I'm tracking myself down. I want to run - run away from myself! But I can't - I can't escape from myself! I must take the path its driving me down, and run and run down endless streets! I want off! And with me run the ghosts of the mothers and children. They never go away, they're always there! Always! Always! Except ... when I'm doing it .. when I... then I don't remember a thing. Then I'm standing before a poster, reading what I've done. I read and read ... I did that? I don't remember a thing! But who will believe me? Who knows what it's like inside me? How it screams and cries out inside me when I have to do it! Don't want to! Must! Don't want to! Must! And then a voice cries out, and I can't listen anymore. Help! I can't!"
There are few positive role models here, except perhaps the counsel who stands up and says and tries to defend him. This a dark, brooding film showing us some of the worst aspects of mankind. A child killer, sure, but also a mob which draws the wrong conclusions and gets violent without evidence. There is a lot of smoking and drinking. Lang shows one guy drinking out of a giant stein with a plateful of sausages in front of him, and another guy from a camera angle up his crotch practically as he's sitting down. If it was made by someone other than a German, you might think it a caricature, as it's made by Lang, we know he's expressing his frustrations with the state of Germany at the time. The ending that has a mother simply asking the audience to watch out for their children probably refers to watching out against predators, but also watching out for them that they don't get swept up into mob hysteria (history would turn out differently of course). It's this hidden message warning against Nazi Germany, Lorre's performance, and Lang's direction that all make this a very good film.
The murder of Elsie leads to a police procedral film that looks more like a police training video. The police are bombarded with 1,500 leads where one police officer claims that "80 - 90% of them are false." The police bring in handwriting experts and pyschiatrists to help them track down the murderer causing panic among the criminal underworld with their constant raids on their bars. As Hans was introduced by shadow, so is Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) as he descends down an arched staircase to a room full of criminals he has gotten to know so well over his years in the police force.
The countless police raids leads many heads of illegal business in the underworld to gather in a hotel room and discuss what they should do about the ongoing search for the murderer because it's cutting into their profits. A man known only as "The Safecracker" (Gustaf Grundgens in a role that would propell him to popularity during the Nazi Regime) suggests there will be no peace for them until the murderer is killed. This scene brilliantly transitions into a police meeting with city officials talking about how to catch the murderer. Lang uses this to show how criminals and police can put aside their differences when they have a common enemy. The film jumps back and force as the two meetings happen in tandem. Cigarette and cigar smoke slowly starts to build up in each room to the point where both rooms are consummed by it, indicating the nervousness of the characters in their search for the murderer. "The Safecracker" ultimately comes up with the plan to use beggars to watch children for the murderer.
The criminal organization starts to document where the beggars are located in the city by making sure no section of the city is not under surveillance. The criminals give them serial numbers marking the information in a ledger for their records. It omniously foreshadows actual events that will happen in Nazi Germany with Hitler's Secret Police and SS. Athough Lang never intended the film to be taken as an attack on Nazis, it's always been associated as such. As the beggars post throughout the city, the police are searching through mental institution records on any patient released within the last five years and ultimately that brings an officer to the apartment of Hans Beckert as the police put the crime together a little slower than the criminals and beggars.
Lorre's Hans toys with the press by writing letters demanding his notes be printed promising to kill again if they are not detailing mass murderers today who seek only recognition for their heinous acts. He's a mentally unstable person, no doubt, and Lorre plays that unstability to perfection. The role of Hans Beckert would unfortunately lead to Lorre's typecasting as villians in many films. It's no coincidence he would be casted in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" before appearing in many classic Hollywood pictures. An unexplored element that is discussed among film scholars states that Hans may have been a World War I soldier whose killing in the war wasn't ultimately shut off in the civilian world as Lang refers to the act of killing in war as "serial murders." This was unexplored and ultimately less convincing as his targets are helpless children.
The newspaper plays an important part of the film, pitting one against another in attempt to locate the murderer with their overall looming presence over the city. Many scenes have the newspaper in the scene setting upon a table or in the hands of one of the characters. Altercations between citizens take place in the street where they accuse one another of being the murderer. What is absolutely amazing is that this film has relatively no location shots and the all scenes were shot on a studio set that impressively created a city in panic. The role of the media in today's society in causing panic and paranoia is shown in this film in a city with over 150 newspaper daily.
Hans becomes distracted as he passes a shop window looking at all the knives in the windows. He is framed by the knives in the display as he notices a small girl, also framed by knives. He starts to experience some intense feelings that he is having trouble controlling. He follows the girl whistling as the camera stalks her as if it were Hans, but immediately afterwards, Hans is stalked by the camera as he feels some omnious level of doom afoot. Perhaps after the girl meets her mother and he stops and realizes how close he was to being caught or the sickness in his ways prompted the feeling. Often times the camera swoons and moves more in this film by Lang than any other film I've seen from the early 1930's. Most films of the time period have the cameras stationary, but in "M," Lang seamlessly moves the camera from across a street through windows and finds his subjects among a crowd.
Sound was relatively a new technology at the time of the film's production. Sound was expensive and only 2/3 of the film has a soundtrack leaving many scenes devoid of sound. Lang experimented with sound and narrative on the film and would have sound coming from off-screen, intense silence disrupted by noise and sounds motivating the actions of the characters. It's ultimately ironic that the whistling that notifies the audience of Hans's presence would alert the suspicion and memory of a blind beggar who sold a balloon to Hans earlier in the film. A contrast that Hans goes unseen by the authorities and underworld but is ultimately caught by a blind beggar through the use of new technology in film, that of sound. As the police try to build evidence through visuals, the new technology of sound in film led the criminals to pursue Hans as if stating to the audience that the "silent film era" has ended and a new breed of film has begun. The beggar finds a young man to follow him and he uses white chalk and makes an "M" on his hand and walks past Hans and marks him as the murderer. This leads to a pursuit by the whole underworld of Hans ultimately leading to a memorable scene in seedy bars of the underworld.
"M" is supposedly based on Peter Kurten, who terrorized children from February to November 1929 and was known as the "Vampire of Dusseldorf," but Lang has always denied this. While researching the film though, Lang had spent time in a mental institution meeting with real child murderers including Kurten. But "M" isn't about the murderer, sure he plays a large part of the film, but the film is essentially about the panic and search for the murderer by all facets of city life. It's a very modern film despite it was made 85 years ago, with beautiful camera work and magnificent sets and lighting. Often times the camera swoons and moves more in this film by Lang than any other film I've seen from the early 1930's. Most films of the time period have the cameras stationary, but in "M," Lang seamlessly moves the camera from across a street through windows and finds his subjects among a crowd. The camera follows characters as they .
If this is considered a part of the canon of German Expressionist filmmaking that dominated German films in the Weimer Republic following the defeat in World War I to the rise of the Nazi Party, it may be the most accessible by today's audiences. But despite that, it may not be the greatest example of that film movement. F.W. Murnau, G.W. Pabst, Paul Leni and Robert Weine all made tremendously wonderful films, whether or not "M" matches these films is inconsequential in that it exceeds on its own merits without directly being an Expressionist film.