July 22, 2005
Based on a series of gruesome murder cases that occurred in Berlin, Germany, M (1931) is one of the earliest serial killer movies. A city is terrorized by a man (Lorre) who kills children. The latest victim is a little girl named Elsie (Landgut). Director Fritz Lang shows her sudden absence (and death) in an effective series of shots: her empty place setting for dinner at home, the ball she was playing with rolling aimlessly on the ground (an image that has been imitated in countless other movies) and the balloon that the killer bought her caught in telephone wires, flailing helplessly in the wind. Lang doesn’t have to show us the actually act—these haunting images speak volumes.
The little girl’s murder sends fear rippling through the city. It is the eighth murdered child. The killer even sends letters to the police and the press. The police have no concrete clues. The public is paranoid. A man is accosted on the street by another for telling a little girl the time. Everyone is stressed. The police work long days following leads that go nowhere. There are conflicting eyewitness accounts that frustrate the authorities. So, they start coming down hard on the criminal underworld.
When the police start applying pressure to the criminals they decide to take matters into their own hands. The track down and catch the killer themselves. It is all they can do because the murderer is giving “good” criminals a bad reputation. The natural order must be restored.
Lang’s film exposes the mob mentality that surfaces in usually normal, rational citizens when their backs are up against the wall and they are afraid. His camera depicts the grungy, dark back rooms and shadowy alleyways of the poor juxtaposed with the tidy, sparseness of the rich. And yet, this crime does not discriminate. It crosses over the entire social and economic strata.
Peter Lorre is quite convincing as the disturbed child killer in the way he looks lustfully at a small child. He is able to convey, through his expressive face, the inner turmoil that his character is wrestling with. Lorre’s killer is not some simple monster that must be destroyed. He is a human being suffering from a sickness. M wrestles with the same issues that Michael Mann’s serial killer movie, Manhunter (1986) also does—how is a serial killer made? Is he manufactured overnight or does it start early in life, cultivated over years. Lorre uses all kinds of twitchy mannerisms to convey his character’s disturbed psyche. In one scene, he is thwarted from his prey and compulsively rubs his hand with all the traits of an addict. It becomes obvious that this murderer will never change what he is and it is these obsessive compulsive traits that ultimately expose him.
The first disc features a scholarly audio commentary by Berkeley University’s Anton Kaes, author of the BFI Film Classics volume on M, and Harvard professor of German, Eric Rentschler. As a pioneer of silent film, Fritz Lang resisted doing a sound movie for a long time. M would be his first one. The two academics examine and point out the obvious and subtle links between characters that Lang establishes through visual clues. They not only comment on specific scenes but also talk about the socio-political background that informs this movie.
The second disc starts of with a “Conversation with Fritz Lang.” Filmmaker William Friedkin conducted an interview with Lang over two days in 1975. The veteran filmmaker speaks in detail about his life and how he escaped Germany before World War II broke out. Friedkin asks good questions in this engrossing documentary.
“Claude Chabrol’s M le maudit” is a 10-minute remake of M that Chabrol made for a French TV show. Known for making his own crime thrillers, this short film is an homage to Lang’s M. In an accompanying interview, he speaks admiringly of Lang and the movie.
“Harold Nebenzal Interview” is a conversation with the son of the film’s producer. He was eight years old when the film was made and was even taken on the set by his father. He talks about his father’s production company and its history.
“Paul Falkenberg’s Classroom Tapes” features excerpts from a class discussion at the New School University with the film’s editor in 1976 and 1977. He talks at length about the techniques he used in M.
“A Physical History of M” takes a look at the various edits of the movie. Its original length was 117 minutes but by its first screening it had been trimmed to 110 minutes. This featurette examines the differences in the French version, much of which was re-shot and re-edited.
Finally, there is an excellent collection of production stills, sketches and behind-the-scenes photographs.