Directed By: Fritz Lang
Starring: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut
Trivia: Chosen by the Association of German Cinémathèques as the most important German film of all times
Fritz Lang’s 1931 film, M, is the story of a Berlin child murderer (Peter Lorre) who, thus far, has managed to elude capture. The authorities have no idea who this killer is, or why he’s targeting children, but are doing everything in their power to bring him to justice. What they don’t realize is the city’s criminal element, whose “business’ is suffering as a result of the police crackdown, have also joined in the search for this elusive killer. Determined to find the culprit before the cops do, a collection of Berlin’s less nefarious lawbreakers, from pickpockets to petty thieves, have banded together to come up with a plan of their own, during which the “Union of Beggars” will shadow as many kids as they can in the hopes the murderer will eventually turn up.
Director Fritz Lang tackles this material head-on, opening the film with the killer approaching young Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut) and gaining her confidence by buying her a balloon. Of course, Lang never shows the actual murder taking place (we’re clued in that Elsie is dead by way of a series of images, like her new balloon flying off), but then, he doesn't have to; the very thought of a girl that young meeting such a fate is powerful enough. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of M, however, is the way the movie isolates its lead character, whose heinous crimes have made him a pariah not only in respectable society, but the criminal underworld as well. Throughout M, Lang cuts back and forth between police conferences and a makeshift gathering of crooks, each hard at work trying to track down this predator and end his reign of terror (interestingly enough, the crooks have more success than the authorities).
Peter Lorre is superb as the killer, a menacing presence early on with his seemingly calm approach to murder (whistling Krieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” whenever he’s on the prowl for a new victim), then arousing our sympathies when he’s finally cornered, revealing to his captors that he’s unable to stop himself from killing and referring to his urge to do so as “the evil thing inside me”. Having spent most of M hoping he would be captured, we feel pity for the character once he finally is, and considering the horrible nature of his crimes, the fact that Lorre pulls this off is simply amazing.