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M : A City Searches for a Murderer [Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder] (1931)


Anyone who makes the effort to closely read the newspaper reports about the major homicide cases of the past few years—e.g., the ghastly double murder of the Fehse siblings in Breslau, the Husmann case, or the case of little Hilde Zäpernick, three crimes that are unsolved to this day—will find a strange similarity of events, circumstances that repeat themselves almost as if natural laws were at work, such as the dreadful psychotic fear of the general public, the self-accusations of the mentally inferior, denunciations unleashing the hate and the jealousy that have built up over years of living side by side, attempts to feed the police investigators false leads, sometimes on malicious grounds and sometimes out of excessive zeal.

Bringing out all these things on the screen, separating them from the incidentals, seems to me to confront a film, a film based on factual reports, with a more substantial responsibility than the artistic reproduction of events: the responsibility of sounding a warning from real events, of educating, and in this way ultimately having a preventive effect. It would go beyond the scope of this brief comment to dwell on the means open to such a film to draw attention to the dangers that, given an incessantly growing crime rate, spell threat and, sadly, all too often, disaster for people at large, children and youngsters in particular; to illuminate the ordinariness and banality with which they announce themselves; to educate; and, most important of all, to have a preventive impact. It hardly needs stating that the artistic reproduction of such a murder case implies not only the presentation of events in concentrated form but also the extraction of typical phenomena and the typification of the killer. For this reason, the film should give the impression at certain points of a moving spotlight, revealing with greatest clarity the thing on which its cone of light is directed at the time: the grotesqueness of an audience infected with a murder psychosis, on the one hand, and the gruesome monotony with which an unknown murderer, armed with a few candies, an apple, a toy, can spell disaster for any child in the street, any child outside the protection of his family or the authorities.

There is one motif used in this case that seems to illustrate particularly well how fantastic real events have become: the idea that the criminal caste, Berlin’s underworld, would take to the streets on its own initiative to seek out the unknown murderer, so as to evade greater police activity, is taken from a factual newspaper report and seemed to me such compelling cinematic material that I lived in constant fear that someone else would exploit this idea before me.

If this film based on factual reports helps to point an admon­ish­ing and warning finger at the unknown, lurking threat, the chronic danger emanating from the constant presence among us of compulsively and criminally inclined individuals, forming, so to speak, a latent potential that may devour our lives in flames—and especially the lives of the most helpless among us—and if the film also helps, perhaps, even to avert this danger, then it will have served its highest purpose and drawn the logical conclusion from the quintessential facts assembled in it.
    -ESSAY: My Film M: A Factual Report (Fritz Lang, May 20, 1931, Criterion)
Fritz Lang's M is weighted with so many honors and such expectation that it is something of a miracle that even after 90 years it bears up easily. The film is variously credited as the first noir, first police procedural, first serial killer movie, first great talkie, etc. It was literally Lang's first talking picture and his last made in Germany. It stands at the nexus of Weimar and Nazi Germany, silent and sound film, Peter Lorre's careers on stage and film, etc. And, somehow, every single aspect of the moment in time in which it was made is translated onto the screen creating a timeless masterpiece.

To begin with, the look of the film is so well known that we can tend to forget that Lang was innovating it. The use of shadows, in particular, is why he is said to have fathered film noir. The insight that having violence occur off-screen would heighten, rather than lesson, the terror leads to the set of shots where a little girl's ball rolls down hill as her balloon floats away. Meanwhile, our introduction to the killer comes via shots of his shadow and his whistling of Edvard Grieg's “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from Peer Gynt. And as frightening as that tune becomes, Lang produces just as strong an effect when he drops out sound from the film completely. It's hard not to see these techniques as the product not just of a genius but of that pivot point between sound and silent.

Lorre, who had already achieved fame on the stage, supposedly waited to make a movie until Lang summoned him for the perfect role. With his shortened face, sensuous lips and protuberant eyes, he was nearly a natural Gollum. initially ordinary seeming--and all the more frightening because of it--we watch him decompensate when thwarted in pursuit of a victim and then descend into beastliness as he is hunted and caught.

But the hunt and capture is the great twist of the text, for Lang twines three storylines. The Berlin police pursue a massive investigation with the lead detective emphasizing procedure and forensics. When their dragnets start to impact underworld "businesses," the various criminal syndicates undertake their own manhunt, co-opting every vagrant in the city to watch every street. The police determine the killer's identity by following up with every recently released mental patient, but just miss finding him home. While they stake out his apartment, a blind peddler recognizes the whistle of the man who bought a victim a balloon at his stand. One of the crew follows him and the little girl he now has with him and manages to mark him with the famous chalk "M." Trapped in and then extracted from a building by the street gang, he is taken to an abandoned warehouse and confronted by the mobsters and a mob who put him on trial for his life.

For all that this smacks of mere vigilantism, he is permitted to present his own defense and even has a representative appointed for him. As the murderer confesses that he is driven by a compulsion he does not understand and is incapable of stopping, the mob seethes. But his "lawyer" insists that it is unjust to execute a man who is not responsible for his own actions and insists his "client" be handed over to the authorities. The imminent implosion of the Weimar Republic is driven home not just by the ease with which the syndicates acted but now by their insistence that they can not turn the killer over to the criminal justice system because it can not be relied upon to keep him institutionalized and so protect the city's children. There is a temptation to credit Lang with prescient political insight here and give him credit for recognizing that authority (Weimar) had lost control over evil (the rising Nazi Party) and could no longer protect the innocent (the German people). Even if this is more than he explicitly intended, it is the theme that pulses through the film when we watch it.

(Reviewed:02-Jan-21)

Grade: (A+)

Websites:

See also:


    -Wikipedia: Fritz Lang
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Fritz Lang (IMDB)
    -ENTRY: Lang, Fritz (Encyclopedia.com)
    -ENTRY: Fritz Lang German director (Michael Barson, Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -ENTRY: Fritz Lang (Classic Film & Television)
    -OBIT: Fritz Lang, Film Director Noted for ‘M,’ Dead at 85 (Albin Krebs, Aug. 3, 1976, NY Times)
    -ENTRY: Fritz Lang (Senses of Cinema)
    -ENTRY: Fritz Lang – the creator of film noir (Classic Monsters)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Fritz Lang (eNotes)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview with Fritz Lang, Beverley Hills, August 12, 1972: The full transcript of a 1972 interview with the great director, who discusses his work in Germany and Hollywood (Michael Gould, Lloyd Chesley•24 DEC 2018, Mubi)
    -VIDEO: Scarlet Street (You Tube)
    -ESSAY: My Film M: A Factual Report (Fritz Lang, May 20, 1931, Criterion)
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: Zum Beispiel: Fritz Lang (Germany 1968, Erwin Leiser)
    -TRIBUTE: Born 125 years ago: Celebrating the films of Fritz Lang: "Metropolis" was his most famous work. One of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema, Fritz Lang was born 125 years ago on December 5 - an opportunity to rediscover his masterpieces. (Deutsche-Welle)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Thea von Harbou
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Thea von Harbou
    -ENTRY: Thea von Harbou (Brigitta B. Wagner, Women Film Pioneers Project)
    -ESSAY: The Enigma of Thea von Harbou (William Ahearn)
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-VIDEO: M (1931) (You Tube)
    -SCRIPT: M Script - Dialogue Transcript (Drew's Script-O-Rama)
    -WIKIPEDIA: M
    -FILMOGRAPHY: M (IMDB)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: M (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -ENTRY: M: film by Lang [1931] (Lee Pfeiffer, Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -STUDY GUIDE: M< (Grade Saver)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Peter Kürten: German serial killer known as "The Vampire of Düsseldorf" and the "Düsseldorf Monster"
    -SCRIPT: M Script - Dialogue Transcript (Drew's Script-O-Rama)
    -ENTRY: M (Film Reference)
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-ENTRY: Peter Lorre Hungarian-American actor (Encyclopaedia Britannica
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-VIDEO ESSAY: Mastering a New Medium—Sound in M (Criterion, SEP 25, 2017)
    -ESSAY: In Context: On Murder, Kangaroo Courts, and Ambivalent Politics (Patrick Brown, February 21, 2017, Cinessential)
    -ESSAY: The long shadow of M (Keith Phipps, Dissolve)
    -ESSAY: Fritz Lang’s M: the blueprint for the serial killer movie: Long before Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en, one far-ahead-of-its-time German film struck fear into viewers’ hearts with its tale of a child-killer at loose in the city. Even today, Fritz Lang’s M still looks astonishingly modern. (Geoff Andrew, 24 April 2019, BFI)
    -ESSAY: Power and Presence in Fritz Lang's M (1931) (Zachary B. Wunrow, 2013, Inquiries)
    -ESSAY: Fritz Lang's 'M' and the Aesthetics of Justice: With this prototypical film noir, Fritz Lang crafts a universe in which telling the difference between good and evil is no easy feat. (Aurora Amidon, Film School Rejects)
    -ESSAY: AN ANALYSIS – THE UNRESOLVED LEGACY OF FRITZ LANG’S “M” (CASSIDY ROBINSON, 1/26/12, The Maguffin)
    -ESSAY: Fritz Lang and METROPOLIS: Friedrich “Fritz” Lang (1890-1976): Vienna, Berlin and Hollywood (The German Way)
    -ESSAY: Fritz Lang: 10 essential films: He was born 126 years ago, before sci-fi films, serial killer movies and film noir were invented. He’d help invent them all. Fritz Lang was one of the giants of cinema, and these 10 films find him at the top of his game. (Matthew Thrift, 5 December 2016, BFI)
    -ESSAY: ‘Mise-en-Scène’ and Fritz Lang: The Invaluable, Short-Lived Magazine’s Article on the Master of Darkness (Sven Mikulec, Cinephilia & Beyond)
    -ESSAY: 10 Essential Fritz Lang Films You Need To Watch (Sam Perduta, 7/28/14, Taste of Cinema)
    -ESSAY: Orson Welles, Fritz Lang and the Art of Cinematography and Film Editing (as well as the recipe to Fritz’s Blue Martini) (American Pulps)
    -ESSAY: Fritz Lang (The Seventh Art)
    -ESSAY: Jean-Luc Godard on Fritz Lang: The following is a translation of a program note that Godard wrote on Fritz Lang’s The Return of Frank James (1940). (The Seventh Art)
    -ESSAY: Samuel Fuller on Fritz Lang (The Seventh Art)
    -ESSAY: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. How the Iconic Silent Film Took Inspiration from Art Movements (Shira Wolfe, artland)
    -ESSAY: ET8: OPENING SEQUENCE OF ‘M’: CLOSE ANALYSIS (Let's Talk Film, November 3, 2011)
    -ESSAY: Horrifying History: The Real Story Behind Fritz Lang’s M (Bill Burke 07/26/2019, Horror News)
    -ESSAY: HOW FRITZ LANG ESCAPED THE NAZIS (Dangerous Minds)
    -ESSAY: Who’s out to get Fritz Lang? This summer, it should be everyone. (Peter Keough, Jul. 19th, 2014, Boston Globe)
    -ESSAY: M by Fritz Lang (Germany, 1931) Phenomenology of Evil: a serial killer and his social group (Cesare Secchi, 14 October 2015, International Journal of Psychoanalysis)
    -ESSAY: Fritz Lang's M - editing sound as visuals (Ken Dancynger, Film Sound)
    -ESSAY: The Sound of Silence in Fritz Lang’s M (Ohio State University: Introduction to Film Theory)
    -ESSAY: The Generationally Transcendental Power of Fritz Lang's 'M': An exploration of how Fritz Lang was able to place a striking message of authority versus community in his 1931 piece 'M'. (Jacob Rose, Voice)
    -ESSAY: Social Commentary in Fritz Lang's Masterpiece M (1931) (Screening Notes, December 17, 2014)
    -VIDEO ESSAY: M As In Mirror: The Self-Examination of 'M' (Jacob Oller, Film School Rejects)
    -PODCAST: EPISODE 17 – FRITZ LANG’S M (1931) (SPECIAL GUEST: Author Samm Deighan, APRIL 26, 2018, Celluloid Junkies)
    -ESSAY: The Queer Threat to Civilization in Fritz Lang's M (Javier Samper Vendrell, 25 Jul 2017, Germanic Review)
    -ESSAY: The M Effect: How Fritz Lang’s “M” is the original “Godfather”. (Musings of a Pipe-smoking Man, SEPTEMBER 23, 2015)
    -ESSAY: The influence of the Art Deco movement in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (JF Alfaya, 6/09/14, Decimononic)
    -ESSAY: M for Murderer: Fritz Lang’s Exploration of the Meaning of Justice (Sarah Evans, Scholar Works IUPUI)
    -ESSAY: The Portrayal of a Murderer in Fritz Lang's M: Toward an Effect of Three-Dimensionality in the Classical Cinema (Olga Solovieva, 04 Nov 2011, Quarterly Review of Film and Video)
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-ESSAY: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt - Notes (A Case of Murder, February 17, 2010)
    -ESSAY: The Haunted California Idyll of German Writers in Exile: Wartime émigrés in L.A. felt an excruciating dissonance between their circumstances and the horrors unfolding in Europe (Alex Ross, March 2, 2020, The New Yorker)
    -ARCHIVES: "fritz lang" (Variety)
    -VIDEO ARCHIVES: Fritz Lang (You Tube)
    -ARCHIVES: Fritz Lang (Criterion)
    -ARCHIVES: Fritz Lang (Internet Archives)
    -ARCHIVES: Fritz Lang (The Guardian)
    -ARCHIVES: "fritz lang (The New Yorker)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Tristan Bath, The Quietus)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Stanley Kaufman, Criterion)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Kevin Maher, Times [uk])
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Mark Kermode, The Observer)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Andrew Pulver, The Guardian)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Pare Lorentz, Vanity Fair)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Classic Film & Television)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle)
    -VIDEO FILM REVIEW: M (Jack's Film Reviews)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Richard T. Jameson, Goethe Institute)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Kenneth Turan, LA Times)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Rich Helt Nau, AZ Daily Sun)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (MICHAEL G. MCDUNNAH, Independent Study in World Cinema,”)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Dennis Lim, LA Times)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (David Jenkins, Little White Lies)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Erik McClanahan, Oregon Arts Watch)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Paulette Reynolds, CineMata)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Chris Cabin, Slant)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Sinyee Cindy Leung, C's Maze)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Tyler L. Harris, Cinema Studies)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Gary Morris, Images Journal)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (D. H. Schleicher, The Schleicher Spin)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Mad Film)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Letterboxd)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Douglas Buck, Offscreen)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Donald Clarke, Irish Times)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (the Film Sufi)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Max O'Connell, Indie Wire)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (What Culture)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Double Negative)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Linda Merritt)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Rob Daniel, Electric Shadows)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Cinema Geek)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Cinephile Blog)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Philip Martin, Arkansas Democrat & Gazette)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (A Moot Point)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Dave Adamson, Den of Geek)
    -FILM REVIEW: M (Marc Mohan, Oregonian)
    -FILM REVIEW: M ()
    -FILM REVIEW: M ()
    -FILM REVIEW: M ()
    -FILM REVIEW: M ()
    -REVIEW: of Destiny (1921) (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)
    -FILM REVIEW: Destiny (David Jenkins, Little White Lies)
    -FILM REVIEW: ()
    -FILM REVIEW: Metropolis (1927) (Philip French, The Guardian)
    -FILM REVIEW: Metropolis (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -FILM REVIEW: ()
    -FILM REVIEW: ()
    -FILM REVIEW: Spies [Spione] (1928) (Philip French, The Guardian)
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    -FILM REVIEW: Woman in the Moon (1929) (Philip French, The Guardian)
    -FILM REVIEW: Clash by Night (1952) (J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader)
    -FILM REVIEW: The Big Heat 919530 (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)
    -FILM REVIEW: Big Heat (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -FILM REVIEW: Fritz Lang's Indian Epic: The Tiger of Eschnapur & The Indian Tomb (1959) (DVD Talk)
    -FILM REVIEW: Fritz Lang (Jay Weissberg, Variety)
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    -TV REVIEW: 'M — A City Hunts a Murderer': TV Review (Hollywood Reporter)