M (1931 film)



theatrical release poster
Directed by Fritz Lang
Produced by Seymour Nebenzal
Written by Fritz Lang
Thea von Harbou
Paul Falkenberg (film editor)
Adolf Jansen
Karl Vash
Based on A newspaper article by Egon Jacobson
Starring Peter Lorre
Otto Wernicke
Gustaf Gründgens
Music by Edvard Grieg
Cinematography Fritz Arno Wagner
Edited by Paul Falkenberg
Distributed by Vereinigte Star-Film GmbH (Germany)
Paramount Pictures (US)
20th Century Fox (UK)
Release dates
  • 11 May 1931 (1931-05-11) (Germany)
Running time
111 minutes[1]
Country Weimar Republic
Language German

M (German: M - Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder — "M - A city looks for a murderer") is a 1931 German drama-thriller film directed by Fritz Lang and starring Peter Lorre. It was written by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou and was the director's first sound film.[2] It concerns the manhunt for a serial killer of children, conducted by both the police and the criminal underworld.

Now considered a classic, the film was deemed by Fritz Lang as his finest work.[3][4]


A group of children are playing an elimination game in the courtyard of an apartment building in Berlin[5] using a chant about a murderer of children. A woman sets the table for dinner, waiting for her daughter to come home from school. A wanted poster warns of a serial killer preying on children, as anxious parents wait outside a school.

Little Elsie Beckmann leaves school, bouncing a ball on her way home. She is approached by Hans Beckert, who is whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King" by Edvard Grieg. He offers to buy her a balloon from a blind street-vendor and walks and talks with her. Elsie's place at the dinner table remains empty, her ball is shown rolling away across a patch of grass and her balloon is lost in the telephone lines overhead.

In the wake of Elsie's death, Beckert sends an angry letter about his crimes to the newspapers, from which the police extract clues using the new techniques of fingerprinting and handwriting analysis. Under mounting pressure from city leaders, the police work around the clock. Inspector Karl Lohmann instructs his men to intensify their search and to check the records of recently released psychiatric patients, to look for those with a history of violence against children. They stage frequent raids to question known criminals, disrupting underworld business so badly that Der Schränker (The Safecracker) calls a meeting of the city's crime lords. They decide to organize their own manhunt, using beggars to watch the children.

The police discover two clues corresponding to the killer's letter in Beckert's rented rooms. They wait there to arrest him.

Beckert sees a young girl in the reflection of a shop window. Following her, he is thwarted when the girl meets her mother. When he encounters another young girl, he succeeds in befriending her but the blind beggar recognizes his whistling. The blind man tells one of his friends, who tails the killer with assistance from other beggars he alerts along the way. Afraid of losing him, one young man chalks a large M (for Mörder, murderer in German) on his hand, pretends to trip and bumps into Beckert, marking the back of his clothing.

The beggars close in. When Beckert realizes he is being followed, he hides inside a large office building just before the workers leave for the evening. The beggars call Der Schränker and a team of criminals arrives. They tie up and torture a guard for information and after capturing the remaining watchmen, they search the building from coal cellar to attic, finally catching Beckert. When a watchman manages to trip the silent alarm, the crooks narrowly escape with their prisoner before the police arrive. One man is captured and tricked into revealing the purpose of the break-in (nothing was stolen) and where Beckert would be taken.

The criminals drag Beckert to an abandoned distillery to face a kangaroo court. He finds a large, silent crowd awaiting him. Beckert is given a "lawyer", who gamely argues in his defense but fails to win any sympathy from the "jury". Beckert delivers an impassioned monologue, saying that he cannot control his homicidal urges, while the other criminals present break the law by choice. Beckert pleads to be handed over to the police, asking, "Who knows what it's like to be me?" His "lawyer" points out that the presiding "judge" is wanted on three counts of totschlag (manslaughter, a form of homicide in German law), and that it is unjust to execute an insane man. Just as the enraged mob is about to kill him, the police arrive to arrest both Beckert and the criminals.

As the real trial passes, five judges prepare to pass judgement on Beckert. Before the sentence is announced, the shot cuts to three of the victims' mothers crying. Elsie's mother says no sentence would bring back the dead children and "One has to keep closer watch over the children"; the screen goes black as she adds, "All of you".[6]



Lang placed an advert in a newspaper in 1930 stating that his next film would be Mörder unter uns (Murderer Among Us) and that it was about a child murderer. He immediately began receiving threatening letters in the mail and was also denied a studio space to shoot the film at the Staaken Studios. When Lang confronted the head of Staaken studio to find out why he was being denied access, the studio head informed Lang that he was a member of the Nazi party and that the party suspected that the film was meant to depict the Nazis.[11] This assumption was based entirely on the film's original title and the Nazi party relented when told the plot.[12]

M was eventually shot in six weeks at a Staaken Zeppelinhalle studio, just outside Berlin. Lang made the film for Nero-Film, rather than with UFA or his own production company. It was produced by Nero studio head Seymour Nebenzal who later produced Lang's The Testament of Doctor Mabuse. Other titles were given to the film before "M" was chosen; Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (A City searches for a Murderer) and Dein Mörder sieht Dich an (Your Killer Looks At You).[13] While researching for the film, Lang spent eight days inside a mental institution in Germany and met several child murderers, including Peter Kürten. He used several real criminals as extras in the film and eventually 25 cast members were arrested during the film's shooting.[14] Peter Lorre was cast in the lead role of Hans Beckert, acting for the film during the day and appearing on stage in Valentine Katayev's Squaring the Circle at night.[15]

Lang did not show any acts of violence or deaths of children on screen and later said that by only suggesting violence he forced "each individual member of the audience to create the gruesome details of the murder according to his personal imagination".[16]

Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, gazing into a shop window. Fritz Lang uses glass and reflections throughout the film for expressive purposes.

M has been said, by various critics and reviewers,[17] to be based on serial killer Peter Kürten—the "Vampire of Düsseldorf"—whose crimes took place in the 1920s.[18] Lang denied that he drew from this case, in an interview in 1963 with film historian Gero Gandert; "At the time I decided to use the subject matter of M there were many serial killers terrorizing Germany—Haarmann, Grossmann, Kürten, Denke, [...]".[19]


M was Lang's first sound film and Lang experimented with the new technology.[20] It has a dense and complex soundtrack, as opposed to the more theatrical "talkies" being released at the time. The soundtrack includes a narrator, sounds occurring off-camera, sounds motivating action and suspenseful moments of silence before sudden noise. Lang was also able to make fewer cuts in the film's editing, since sound effects could now be used to inform the narrative.[21]

The film was one of the first to use a leitmotif, a technique borrowed from opera, associating a tune with Lorre's character, who whistles the tune "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. Later in the film, the mere sound of the song lets the audience know that he is nearby, off-screen. This association of a musical theme with a particular character or situation is now a film staple.[22] Peter Lorre could not whistle and Lang's wife and co-writer Thea von Harbou is heard in the film.[23]

Release and reception

M premiered in Berlin on 11 May 1931 at the UFA-Palast am Zoo in a version lasting 117 minutes.[15] The original negative is preserved at the Federal Film Archive in a 96-minute version. In 1960, an edited 98-minute version was released. The film was restored in 2000 by the Netherlands Film Museum in collaboration with the Federal Film Archive, the Cinemateque Suisse, Kirsch Media and ZDF/ARTE., with Janus Films releasing the 109-minute version as part of its Criterion Collection using prints from the same period from the Cinemateque Suisse and the Netherlands Film Museum.[24] A complete print of the English version and selected scenes from the French version were included in the 2010 Criterion Collection releases of the film.[25]

M was later released in the U.S. in 1933 by Foremco Pictures. After playing in German with English subtitles for two weeks, it was pulled from theaters and replaced by an English version. The re-dubbing was directed by Eric Hakim and Lorre was one of the few cast members to reprise his role in the film.[15] As with many other early talkies from the years 1930–1931, M was partially reshot with actors (including Lorre) performing dialogue in other languages for foreign markets after the German original was completed, apparently without Lang's involvement. An English-language version was filmed and released in 1932 from an edited script with Lorre speaking his own words, his first English part. An edited French version was also released but despite the fact that Lorre spoke French his speaking parts were dubbed.

A Variety review said that the film was "a little too long. Without spoiling the effect—even bettering it—cutting could be done. There are a few repetitions and a few slow scenes."[15] Graham Greene compared the film to "looking through the eye-piece of a microscope, through which the tangled mind is exposed, laid flat on the slide: love and lust; nobility and perversity, hatred of itself and despair jumping at you from the jelly".[16]

In 2013 a DCP version was released by Kino Lorber and played theatrically in North America[26] in the original aspect ratio of 1.19:1.[27] Critic Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called this the "most-complete-ever version" at 111 minutes.[28] The film was restored by TLEFilms Film Restoration & Preservation Services (Berlin) in association with Archives françaises du film - CNC (Paris) and PostFactory GmbH (Berlin).[29]


Lang considered M to be his favorite of his own films because of the social criticism in the film. In 1937, he told a reporter that he made the film "to warn mothers about neglecting children".[20]

A Hollywood remake of the same name was released in 1951, shifting the action from Berlin to Los Angeles. Nero Films head Seymour Nebenzal and his son Harold produced the film for Columbia Pictures. Lang had once told a reporter "People ask me why I do not remake M in English. I have no reason to do that. I said all I had to say about that subject in the picture. Now I have other things to say."[14] The remake was directed by Joseph Losey and starred David Wayne in Lorre's role. Losey stated that he had seen M in the early 1930s and watched it again shortly before shooting the remake, but that he "never referred to it. I only consciously repeated one shot. There may have been unconscious repetitions in terms of the atmosphere, of certain sequences."[14] Lang later said that when the remake was released he "had the best reviews of my life".[16]

The original 1931 M was ranked at number thirty-three in Empire magazines' "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.[30]

In 2003, M was adapted for radio by Peter Straughan and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on February 2, later re-broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra on 8 October 2016.[31] Directed by Toby Swift, this drama won the Prix Italia for Adapted Drama in 2004.

See also


  1. "M (A)". British Board of Film Classification. 24 May 1932. Retrieved 30 July 2013.
  2. "Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep: A Brief History of Child Murder in Cinema". Bloody Disgusting!. Retrieved 19 April 2016.
  3. Reader Archive-Extract: 1997/970808/M
  4. Kauffman, Stanley. "The Mark of M". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
  5. While the location is never mentioned in the film, the dialect used by the characters is characteristic of Berliners, and a police inspector's map labeled "Berlin" and a policeman's order to take a suspect to the "Alex", Berlin's central police headquarters on the Alexanderplatz, make the venue clear.
  6. Garnham, Nicholas (1968). M: a film by Fritz Lang. New York: Simon and Schulster. pp. 15–108. ISBN 9780900855184.
  7. Erickson, Hal. "Biography". Allmovie. Retrieved 2007-01-14.
  8. Staedeli, Thomas. "Otto Wernicke". Cyranos. Retrieved 2007-01-14.
  9. Staedeli, Thomas. "Otto Wernicke". Cyranos. Retrieved 2007-01-14.
  10. Garnham. p. 13.
  11. Jensen, Paul M.. The Cinema of Fritz Lang. New York: A. S. Barnes & Co.. 1969. SBN 498 07415 8. pp. 93
  12. Wakeman, John. World Film Directors, Volume 1. New York: The H. W. Wilson Company. 1987. ISBN 0-8242-0757-2. pp. 614.
  13. Jensen. pp. 93
  14. 1 2 3 Jensen. pp. 94.
  15. 1 2 3 4 Jensen. pp. 93.
  16. 1 2 3 Wakeman. pp. 615.
  17. Ramsland, Katherine. "Court TV Crime Library Serial Killers Movies". Crime Library. Retrieved 28 October 2006.
  18. Morris, Gary. "A Textbook Classic Restored to Perfection". Bright Lights. Retrieved 2007-01-12.
  19. "Fritz Lang on M: An Interview", in Fritz Lang: M—Protokoll, Marion von Schröder Verlag, Hamburg 1963, reprinted in the Criterion Collection booklet.
  20. 1 2 Jensen. pp. 95.
  21. Jensen. pp. 103.
  22. Costantini, Gustavo. "Leitmotif revisited". Filmsound. Retrieved 10 May 2006.
  23. Falkenberg, Paul (2004). "Classroom Tapes — M". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 2007-08-08.
  24. M, Janus Films, Criterion Collection, closing credits.
  25. Review of 2010 M Blu-ray/DVD release (region 2), DVD Outsider.co.uk. Retrieved 2010-04-24.
  26. Erik McLanahan (2013-04-09). "Fritz Lang's 'M' is a great entertainment, but it's also a genre mashup". Oregon Artswatch. Retrieved 2014-05-20.
  27. "M (Thursday 9PM)". The Charles Theater [Baltimore, Maryland]. Archived from the original on 20 May 2014. Retrieved 2014-05-20.
  28. Kenneth Turan (2013-04-09). "Critic's Choice: 'M' stands for masterpiece". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2014-05-20.
  29. "M". Kino Lorber. Retrieved 2014-05-20.
  30. "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema: 33. M". Empire.
  31. "Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou - M - BBC Radio 4 Extra". Retrieved 21 October 2016.

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