Set in Berlin under the Weimar Republic, M is widely regarded as one of the best examples of German Expressionist cinema, and among the high points of director Fritz Lang’s career. The movie is said to be loosely based on serial killer Peter Kürten, the Vampire of Düsseldorf, though this is denied by Lang himself. Even so, Kürten’s 1929 “exploits” must have been fresh enough in public memory at the time of the film’s release (1931) to fuel speculation in the minds of the audience.

One of the most notable aspects of the movie is the brilliant use of lighting to convey intense emotion, especially in the case of the serial killer M/Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre, more famous as Ugarte in Casablanca). The movie was also one of the first to use Leitmotifs to add intensity to the film’s score, particular background scores to highlight certain events/characters in the movie, especially notable being the whistling of Edvard Grieg’s In The Hall of The Mountain King every time the murderer makes his entry. Peter Lorre’s passionate speech at the end was picked up by Joseph Goebbels for the famous Nazi propaganda movie Die Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), since both Lang and Lorre were Jewish, and since it supposedly pointed to the inherent criminal nature of all Jews.


The movie opens on the streets of Berlin with children singing an “awful song” about a”child murderer” (euphemism for paedophile). Enter Lorre, whom we see buying a balloon from a blind fellow and gives it to a little girl, Elsie Beckmann, all the while whistling In the Hall of the Mountain King. In the next few scenes, we see Frau Beckmann growing anxious because Elsie has not returned, following which we see the balloon that Beckert (Peter Lorre) bought for Elsie tangled in power lines.

Public outrage follows over the murder, with posters proclaiming it to me the latest in a series of unsolved murders. The city’s population is on the verge of hysteria, with wild accusations being thrown about at anyone who was found to be in the vicinity of a child. The police efforts are further thwarted by exaggerated and contradicting testimonies from “witnesses”, and hundreds of clues, mostly leading to dead ends. Even worse, the killings appear to be completely random, with no pattern to be found. The police are constantly on a state of high alert, with the “usual suspects” rounded up in raids and checks on lower-class neighbourhoods and “seedy” joints. The Berlin mafia decides that this level of police activity is sure to drive them out of business (plus they do not want to be thrown into the same category as the child killer), so they decide to try and catch M themselves. The Beggars’ Union is called in to provide ground-level surveillance of any suspicious activity.

A breakthrough occurs when the same blind balloon salesman hears M whistling again. He tells another watcher, who sees M with another child and tails him, putting a chalk-mark of “M” on Lorre’s coat. Lorre attempts to get rid of the “M” mark when he sees it, then notices people following him. He tries to hide in an office building, and one of his followers tips off the mafia. The criminals organise a break-in and manage to nab M, but one of them is nabbed by the police and, upon being interrogated, reveals the entire plan to nab M.

The criminals take M to an abandoned distillery, where a kangaroo court is held. Despite M’s passionate defense, he is condemned to death. The police manage to arrive just in time to stop M from being lynched. The movie ends with a court of law sentencing M.


I didn’t really get the end. The sentence is not passed, though Wikipedia says that society, not M, is the real murderer here. Maybe this has to do with mafia boss Schranker condemning M to death, when he himself is wanted for 3 murders, for which his justification is, at best, shaky. Another bit I didn’t get is the 30-odd second shot of Inspector Lohmann talking on the phone, while the camera is below his desk, and we are looking up his pants. Really, really weird.

A Beggars’ Union. Er…..what?

Despite Lang claiming no influence of Peter Kürten upon Peter Lorre’s character, there is a scene were Lohmann mentions the serial killers Fritz Haarmann and Karl Grossmann. I really liked Lorre’s speech at the end, an attempt at exploring the mind of a deviant when psychiatry is just beginning to gain some ground. It had shades of DeQuincey in it, from his work Confessions of an English Opium-eater, an attempt at exploring drug-use, addiction and substance-abuse when it wasn’t really understood.

All in all, a bloody good movie. I give it 8.5 on 10.

Look up Peter Kürten, Fritz Haarmann and Karl Grossmann on the Crime Library site, http://www.crimelibrary.com

I’m downloading The Eternal Jew, I’m very curious now.

Currently reading: Divina Commedia : Inferno (Dante Alighieri, 1321)

Music: Kiuas : The Spirit of Ukko (2005)

Categories: Cinema, Weimar Republic
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