Fritz Lang's 'M'

Intro

Fritz Lang's 'M' has been called many things: 'frightfully good', 'the predecessor to all serial killer thrillers like Psycho and The Silence Of The Lambs', 'one of the defining movies of European pre-WWII cinema' and much more. 'M' premiered May 11th 1931 in the Ufa-Palast am Zoo in Berlin to the standing ovations of an enthusiastic audience. In my personal opinion it is truly one of the finest movies ever made.

 

Historical Background, The Peter Kürten Connection

The story of 'M' started in the late 20ies when the German public was exposed to a growing number of serial killers and their horrible actions. Although Fritz Lang has always denied it, it has to be assumed that one particular serial killer, the 'Vampir von Düsseldorf' (the vampire of Düsseldorf) Peter Kürten became the real-life inspiration to 'M'.

Kürten brutally attacked 41 people, 9 of which died and was finally arrested May 24th 1930. After he drank the blood of some of his victims he was dubbed the vampire of Düsseldorf. Before his accidental(!) arrest over 12,000 leads were followed, over 200 people surrendered themselves claiming to be the killer and 300 psychics and occultists offered their help. The two letters Kürten send to local newspapers sparked a flood of copy-cats and the public was in the state of mass-psychosis. Kürten was the perfect example of a serial killer with the exterior of an average citizen. Surviving victims and witnesses described him as well-dressed, friendly, trust-instilling and respectable. Kürten was executed July 2nd 1931 in Cologne.


The first page of the special edition of 'Kriminal Magazin'
(click for larger picture 239KB)

Early 1930 during the height of the mass hysteria the police department of Düsseldorf - now also supported by a group of detectives from the Berlin police, commonly referred to as 'Alex' - published a 25 page special bulletin which must have been known by Lang. This special edition of the publication 'Kriminal Magazine' described the 'Düsseldorfer Massenmörder' (serial killer of Düsseldorf) and proclaimed 'Alles vergebens! Der Mörder bleibt unerkannt! Er ist mitten unter uns!' (Everything in vain! The murderer remains unknown! He is among us!). Interestingly enough the working title for 'M' was 'Mörder unter uns' (murderer among us). 

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The introduction of 'M'.

Other connections between 'M' and the article in 'Kriminal Magazin' included the detailed description of the suspect (including his hat which was somewhat of a trademark of Kürten) as well as the assumed motives and even whole scenes. For example the scene in 'M' where an old man talks to a little girl and is immediately accused of being the killer - until the police arrives and saves him from the angry mob. Or parents picking up their children at school - a scene featured prominently during the first minutes of 'M'. Or the letters to the newspapers that become an important piece of evidence: Kürten had written his letters in thick blue pencil - in 'M' it is thick red pencil.

In the hunt for the killer the police of Düsseldorf even went so far as to ask the world of organized crime for help since the hunt for the killer was hurting their 'business' - one of the main plot points in 'M'. The Kürten-case was headed by the legendary Kriminalrat (police chief?) Bennat of the Berlin 'Alex'. In 'M' inspector Lohmann became an identical copy of Bennat: heavy, relaxed, cigar smoker, unorthodox methods.

Other influences were the cases of Haarmann, Denk and Großmann - all prominent serial killers in the late 20ies. Also a string of horrendous child killings in the city of Breslau, a crime which was never solved.

 

The Making

Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang had studied the methods of police work, met with psychiatrists about serial killers and familiarized themselves with the area of eastern Berlin in detail and thus were able to write a very detailed and accurate book. The psychological profile of their killer 'Hans Beckert' was dry and detailed, avoiding all grotesque exaggerations that plaque lesser movies. Everything was sound and realistic and Fritz Lang went so far as to employ a number of real criminals during the catacombs trial scene.


The premiere poster of 'M'
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So what makes 'M' so remarkable? What are its outstanding features and contributions? Here are only a few suggestions in no particular order:

Peter Lorre's portrayal of a serial killer is one of the defining performances of movie history. Not only did it set the benchmark for his own career (something which he may have regretted for years to follow) it also defined the role of 'serial psycho killer' itself.

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It was one of the very first movies with audio track. Fritz Lang handled the new medium of sound in a very professional manner, employing off-voices and personal music themes (he even goes so far as tieing a specific melody - Grieg's 'Hall Of The Mountain King' - to the dangerous state of the murderer, in one of the most impressive scenes of the movie the Beckert tries to supress his devious instincts and as he struggles to control himself he starts whistling the trademark melody until his transformation into the killer is complete). These are traits that may be quite common for today's good movies but it is absolutely brilliant for a director's very first experience with a brand-new technology.

 

The Nazis

M was outlawed once the Nazis came into power (does anybody has any specifics on this?) and pictures of Peter Lorre's portrayal of M ended up in the vile anti-Semitic propaganda movie 'Der Ewige Jude' (the eternal jew):

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Peter Lorre in the lower right.

In 'Der Ewige Jude' the narrator reads: 'Der Jude Lorre in der Rolle eines Kindermörders. Nach dem Schlagwort: "Nicht der Mörder, sondern der Ermordete ist schuldig", wird versucht, das normale Rechtsempfinden zu verdrehen und durch mitleiderregende Darstellung des Verbrechers das Verbrechen zu beschönigen und zu entschuldigen.'

Translation: 'The Jew Lorre in the role of a child murderer. Following the motto: "Not the murderer but the murdered is guilty", it is tried to contort the normal sense of justice and to excuse and lessen the crime with a compassion inducing portrayal of it.'

 

The Story

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And what do the critics say?

'A grand evening which ended with enthusiastic ovations for the movie and its creators!' - Filmwelt

'Riveting and frighteningly contemporary; cinematically dazzling, especially for an early talkie. Lorre's performance is unforgettable.' - Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide

'This riveting, 1931 German drama by Fritz Lang--an early talkie--unfolds against a breathtakingly expressionistic backdrop of shadows and clutter, an atmosphere of predestination that seems to be closing in on Lorre's terrified villain. M is an important piece of cinema's past along with a number of Lang's early German works, including Metropolis and Spies. (Lang eventually brought his influence directly to the American cinema in such films as Fury, They Clash by Night, and The Big Heat.) M shouldn't be missed.' - Tom Keogh

 

 

Sources:

Friedemann Beyer: Peter Lorre, Seine Filme - sein Leben
Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, München 1988 (Filmbibliothek)
301 Seiten, 12,80 DM

Elisabeth Lenk und Katharina Kaever (Hg.): Peter Kürten, genannt der Vampir von Düsseldorf.
Eichborn Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1998 (Andere Bibliothek).
346 Seiten, 49,50 DM.

Lotte Eisner: Fritz Lang
Da Capo Press, New York 1976
416 pages, $15.95

Patrick McGilligan: Fritz Lang, The Nature Of The Beast
St. Martin's Press, New York 1997
548 pages, hardcover

Nöel Simsolo, Bernard Eisenschitz, Gérard Legrand: M le Maudit
Edition Plume, Paris 1990 (Cinémathèque Francaise)
224 pages, hardcover

 

'M' is available on DVD and VHS but I would definitely go with the DVD if you can (it's cheaper too!). The Criterion edition has the often missing courtroom finale which adds a subtle but important twist to the political statement of the movie.

--ORDER DVD HERE with 30% discount--

 

--ORDER VHS HERE with 15% discount--

Other movies by Fritz Lang - save up to 40%!

 

Literature

Books about Peter Kürten, the 'Vampire of Düsseldorf':

 --Hier Bestellen!--

cover

 

Books about Peter Lorre, star of 'M' and many others (incl. 'Casablanca'!)

--Hier Bestellen!--

cover
This is the definitive book about Peter Lorre - unfortunately the Englisch version is currently out of print.

Want to know more about the creator of 'M'? Here are some links:

Deutsche Bücher ueber Fritz Lang

English Fritz Lang Books