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53 M 1931 
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Post 53 M 1931
M - Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (1931)

A serial killer preys on children in a nameless German city (Berlin by the accents). The police's failure to catch him leads to panic and hysteria, provoking police crackdowns on known criminal establishments. This in turn leads to the criminal fraternity hunting for the serial killer themselves, finally identifying him with the help of beggars and putting him in front of a kangaroo court, where the serial killer defends himself by stating that he acts due to his nature and not by choice, unlike the criminals who judge him.

"M" has been inspired by a number of serial killers in 1920ies and 1930ies Germany, particularly the case of Peter Kürten, "The Vampire of Düsseldorf". The film was actually released in Italy as "M - il mostro di Düsseldorf".

Persons involved
This was Fritz Lang's first "talkie" after having established himself as one of the great German silent movie directors ("Dr. Mabuse - Der Spieler", "Die Nibelungen" and, of course, "Metropolis"). After his next film "Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse" would be banned by the Nazis, who came to power in 1933, he left Germany for Hollywood, where he enjoyed a successful career, primarily making films in the noir style. He would return to Germany in the 1960ies to direct his last films.
For Peter Lorre, who plays the serial killer, "M" marked the breakthrough to international stardom. He, too, would leave Germany after the Nazis came to power, first going to Britain, where he starred in Hitchcock's original "The Man who knew too much", then Hollywood, where he had roles in classics, such as "The Maltese Falcon" and "Casablanca". The downside to his truly remarkabe acting in "M" was him being typecast as a ferret-faced villain.
The boss of the underworld is played by Gustav Gründgens, who is one of the most respected Germans theatre actors of all times, his most celebrated role being Mephistopheles in Goethe's "Faust". His reputation is tarnished, though, because he continued to work prominently under the Nazis. Film buffs may know of him from the Academy Award winning movie "Mephisto" (Best Foreign Language film in 1981), which was based on a roman à clef about Gründgens.

Cinematic influence
"M" is a landmark film, because it established two overlapping genres: The serial killer movie and the police procedural ("M" is said to be the first film to accurately reflect police procedure).
With regard to the technical aspects, the use of sound in "M" is particularly striking. Most early "talkies" used sound rather randomly; "M" uses sound sparingly to convey the story. The killer whistles "The Hall of the Mountain King" from Grieg's "Peer Gynt" , which enables us to identify him long before we get to see his face for the first time (the same principle as in "Jaws"). Also, the killer is later identified by a blind beggar because of his whistling.
The depiction of a serial killer (and moreover a pedophile) as a conflicted personality with human dimensions, who acts because of his nature rather than by choice, has remained unusual: Most serial killer movies present the killers as irredeemable monsters (the exception being "Monster").

Like all German films of the late 1920ies and early 1930ies, the political dimensions of "M" have been discussed. There appear to be critics/ film scholars, who regard the criminal fraternity as a stand-in for the Nazis, because they are organised, they challenge the establishent (police) and they create their own legal system, not bound by the rule of law. Sometimes, it comes down to arguments such as "The leader of the criminals wears a leather coat of the type much favoured by Joseph Goebbels".
I think most of these interpretations suffer from hindisght bias. Fritz Lang made a film with political connotations, and that film was "Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse" not "M". I think "M" is best watched without reading too much into it.

Is it worth watching today?
A lot of classics are work to sit through, but this is not one of them. "M" holds up surprisingly well today and remains entertaining, although most of us will have seen plenty of police procedurals and serial killer movies. "M" has striking images - the murderer noticing his mark ("M" for Murderer") in a reflection is the best-known - and captures the atmosphere of a city in fear rather well.

Wed Jul 22, 2009 2:42 pm
Post Re: 53 M 1931
Thanks Unke

Great post!

I have not seen this for years and am now inspired to rewatch it.

Would you consider it to be Peter Lorre's best work?


Wed Jul 22, 2009 3:21 pm
Post Re: 53 M 1931
Robert Holloway wrote:

Would you consider it to be Peter Lorre's best work?


Hi Rob,

I don't think I've seen enough of his work to make such a statement, but I'd say that of all Peter Lorre films that I have seen, this is his most memorable performance.

Thu Jul 23, 2009 3:23 am
Post Re: 53 M 1931
Unke wrote:
Robert Holloway wrote:

Would you consider it to be Peter Lorre's best work?


Hi Rob,

I don't think I've seen enough of his work to make such a statement, but I'd say that of all Peter Lorre films that I have seen, this is his most memorable performance.

Is there anything that even comes close? Your point about him being typecast after M is spot-on; I haven't seen many of his films either, but I can't think of a film where he played a particularly sympathetic character after M.

Given that his character was sympathetic, to whatever degree, in M means that role is one heck of an achievement. The first time I saw M, I remember being blown away by how much more three-dimensional the character was than the one he played in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

In fact, I have to say that my view of Lorre's Ugarte in Casablanca changed after I saw M. My mind does a little automatic backfilling . . .

Thu Jul 23, 2009 8:54 pm
Post Re: 53 M 1931
I'd throw in another favorite performance (again with Sidney Greenstreet)

The Mask Of Dimitrios

One of my favorite actors and every time he's on screen I seem to enjoy his performance. Even if the film is below standard.


Thu Jul 23, 2009 9:51 pm

Joined: Wed Mar 04, 2009 7:44 pm
Posts: 1404
Post Re: 53 M 1931
The 1951 remake of M is showing at Lacma tomorrow. don't think its on dvd.

1951/b&w/86 min.
Scr: Norman Reilly Raine, Leo Katcher, Waldo Salt; dir: Joseph Losey; w/ David Wayne, Raymond Burr, Norman Lloyd, Luther Adler, Howard da Silva; cinematography: Ernest Laszlo.

In this unjustly neglected remake of the Fritz Lang masterpiece of the same name, Joseph Losey turns the manhunt for a child-murderer into a stark portrait of paranoia in postwar America. Largely set in and around Bunker Hill, the film's climax takes place in the Bradbury Building. Blacklisted shortly after the film's release when he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Losey relocated to Europe, where he went on to collaborate with Harold Pinter on a number of iconic films, producing a far-ranging and esteemed body of work.

“A marvelous, frightening film, years ahead of [Losey’s] time.”—David Thompson

Imported 35mm print.


Fri May 18, 2012 4:38 pm
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