Classic Movie ReviewsMovie ReviewsClassic Review: M (1931)

Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut
Fritz Lang
Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang
Running Time
99 minutes
Overall Score
Rating Summary
M is an amazing film and deserves to be watched more than once.

A serial killer named Hans Beckert (Lorre) is murdering young, innocent children in a small town in Germany, bringing fear and scandal to society. The shock of the crimes brings attention from the police, making things uneasy for the town criminals. When the police is not capable of finding the responsible for the murders, the town takes justice in its own hands.

M is the first sound film by Fritz Lang. He was already a celebrated filmmaker at the time, having helmed such films as Metropolis (1927) and Dr. Mabuse (1922). He was an artist at the top of his game when he directed M, and his artistry is seen in pretty much every frame of this film.

The first transitional years from silent to sound were very complicated narratively; directors and technicians didn’t really know how to do, they were still learning what worked and what didn’t. So it’s always a treat when we watch a movie from that period that not only surpasses those challenges but also have something of brilliant in it. M has all of that.

Lang was a master in German expressionism, and that can be seen here: the chiaroscuro, the camera angles, the almost deformed ways the characters looked; all of those technical decisions helped turning the story into a Gothic nightmare, making us feel unsettled during the entire run of the film. Of course, the subject matter is very uncomfortable: a serial killer targeting children is not a feel-good movie material at all. But Lang goes further than that: in 1931, the Nazi party was gaining strength in Germany, and it is impossible not to trace a parallel of the real Germany with the fictitious one in the film.

Lang makes us uncomfortable with the story not only because of the main subject. In time, we sense there is something very wrong with pretty much all of the characters in the film. There is an anger that needs to explode, that needs to be addressed, and more importantly, that needs to be given space to be acted upon. The catharsis for these people is not talking about it; it’s acting on it. It is turning their feelings into action, into aggression, into violence. That is why they attack the old man, even though everyone is perfectly capable of knowing right from wrong.

Then the film goes into probably its strongest scene: the judgment of the murderer. It is a hypnotic freak show, and not only because of the light it shines on the killer; but especially, because of the light it shines on these people who are gathered in the underground, feverish of hate, prepared to do the worst (another parallel with the Nazis maybe?). This is the moment where Lorre truly shines; his participation on the film up to that point was very discreet.

The truth is the film focus a lot more on the impact Beckert’s actions have created in society than in himself. But his monologue is a thing of beauty. Lorre had almost a caricaturist’s look, which something could be even funny, but he manages to make his character sickening to watch and deeply disturbed, which, in time, makes us feel kind of sympathetic towards him, even if just for a small tiny bit.

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