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Crime, Drama, Thriller, Film-Noir
IMDB rating:
Fritz Lang
Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert
Ellen Widmann as Frau Beckmann
Inge Landgut as Elsie Beckmann
Otto Wernicke as Inspector Karl Lohmann
Theodor Loos as Inspector Groeber
Gustaf Gründgens as Schränker
Friedrich Gnaß as Franz, the burglar
Fritz Odemar as The cheater
Paul Kemp as Pickpocket with six watches
Theo Lingen as Bauernfänger
Rudolf Blümner as Beckert's defender
Georg John as Blind panhandler
Franz Stein as Minister
Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur as Police chief
Storyline: In Germany, Hans Beckert is an unknown killer of girls. He whistles Edvard Grieg's 'In The Hall of the Mountain King', from the 'Peer Gynt' Suite I Op. 46 while attracting the little girls for death. The police force pressed by the Minister give its best effort trying unsuccessfully to arrest the serial killer. The organized crime has great losses due to the intense search and siege of the police and decides to chase the murderer, with the support of the beggars association. They catch Hans and briefly judge him.
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Influential and unforgettable masterpiece.
Fritz Lang's highly influential career as a film director began in post World War I Germany, where he was a leading figure in the German Expressionist film movement, and ended in the United States in 1953 with the production of The Big Heat, a film noir classic. Perhaps his greatest film, M (Germany, 1931) forms an historical bridge between expressionism and film noir. Like the former it uses strange and disturbing compositions of light and dark in order to symbolize the inner workings of the human mind; like the latter it more realistically sets its story in a modern urban setting and blends in sociological issues along with the psychological and moral ones.

Even though M was Lang's (and Germany's) first sound film, many historians cite it as the initial masterpiece of cinema to appear following the introduction of sound into films in the late 1920's. While most early "talkies" return films to their static, visually monotonous, stage- imitative beginnings and thus limit rather than expand the artistic possibilities of the medium, M avoids the failing by skillfully balancing asynchronous, off-screen sounds with the more limiting use of synchronous dialogue. The film's editing, particularly its elaborate use of parallel cutting, also contributes kinetic energy and fluidity to the storytelling. Of course, many of the film's sound effects are also imaginative and memorable, none more so than the compulsive whistling of the film's central character, the stalker and serial killer of little girls Hans Beckert (magnificently played by Peter Lorre).

Sound is also an important contributor to M's rich and influential use of off screen space. One famous example is the scene that introduces Beckert as a shadow against his own Wanted poster, creepily intoning to his next victim, Elsie Beckmann, "You have a very pretty ball." Not only is Beckert's shadow a bow toward Lang's expressionist artistic roots, but it ironically places the murderer in the implied space in front of the image - that is, among us, the human community of viewers of which he is an innocuous-appearing, albeit monstrous, member. Another example of Lang's use of off-screen space is the montage of shots whose common denominator is Elsie's absence from them: an empty chair at the Beckmann dinner table, the vertiginous stairwell down which Elsie's mother searches compulsively and futilely for signs of her daughter's arrival, the attic play area that awaits Elsie's return from school. Most memorable of all - and most often alluded to visually in other films - is the series of shots that indirectly record Beckert's assault and murder of the innocent child, representing these off screen events metonymically via the entry of Elsie's ball from bushes along on the right edge of the frame and the release of her balloon from telephone wires and off the left edge of the frame. Never in the history of cinema has something so terrible been communicated through such powerfully understated images.

Beyond its technical brilliance, the keys to M's lasting impact are its psychologically convincing portrait of Hans Beckert's twisted compulsion and the still relevant ambivalence of his capture and "trial." Unlike contemporary cinematic examples of the serial killer, Beckert is not presented simply as a grotesque psychopath. Nor is the issue of how society should deal with him at all clear-cut. To be sure, the gut-reaction of most film audiences is to root on the underworld mobsters and petty thieves who, beating the established authorities to their mutual quarry, capture Beckert and bring him to a mock- formal trial whose conclusion is foregone. Like many in America today, Beckert's accusers are disinclined to listen to insanity pleas and would just as soon be rid of the "monster" in the surest way possible: a summary death penalty with as little fretting about legal rights as possible.

Considering the heinousness of Beckert's crimes and the imperfections of a legal/medical system that could well turn him loose to kill again, this emotional response is hard to resist. Yet M is by no means an endorsement of vigilantism - quite the contrary. Through the unlikely rhetorical persuasions of Beckert's unkempt "court appointed" defense attorney and Beckert's own impassioned monologue, Lang strongly implies that impatience with democratic judicial procedure and a paranoid eagerness to scapegoat others (guilty or not) in the name of order are symptomatic of the social hysteria breeding Nazism in 1930s Germany. That the ruthless killer who heads the underworld looks, dresses, and gestures like a Gestapo officer is no accident. Moreover, the letter "M" chalked on Beckert's back by one of his pursuers not only stands for "murderer" but also alludes to God's marking of Cain. While the popular misconception holds that the mark of Cain symbolizes his evil, it in fact represents God's warning to Cain's flawed fellow creatures not to mete out wrathful vengeance, but to leave justice in God's hands. Translated into secular terms (and literally entering the shot from the top of the frame), God's hands in M belong to the legitimate authorities that intervene at the last moment to arrest and try Hans Beckert "in the name of the Law."
You'll Remember This One Forever
This is one of those movies that will stay with you for the rest of your life. The characters are ugly and disturbing, there is nothing "cute" in this movie.

There are constant parallelisms drawn between the police and the underworld and the common way in which they operate.

We also get to journey into the mind of the madman. If you enjoyed "Silence of the Lambs", you should see this also.

Of course you must be patient enough to deal with subtitles, and the fact that this is a very old movie - one of the first "talkies". But most viewers will get something out of the dialogue even without knowing the German language.
M-1931: Where Fritz Lang bares the soul and psychology of the child-killer.
This is, unequivocally, a psychological thriller that all films buffs must see. I've now seen it three times, but I'm certain to see it again.

The fictional character of Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) is based upon a real-life serial killer who stalked the streets of Dusseldorf. Fritz Lang, the director, had read an article about that killer and constructed this thrilling story that relates how Beckert is finally brought to justice.

The film opens with a sequence that establishes the latest disappearance of a small girl, Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut), with her mother (Ellen Widmann) waiting and waiting, and finally calling anxiously for Elsie from her apartment window, set high in the lower-class tenement block. The expected hue and cry ensues at yet another ghastly murder; the citizens are again outraged that the murderer is still loose; the police are stumped for clues; and, most importantly, the well-connected criminal bosses in the city are angry – because the police step up raids across the city trying to find the killer and, in that process, prevent them from continuing their criminal activities. So, they decide to find the murderer themselves and get rid of him…

And, to compound the dramatic irony, Lang has the police launch a massive manhunt, across the county, for all men with a history of mental illness. As a result of that search, the file on Beckert turns up, and so the police set up a stake-out at his apartment when clues there substantiate their suspicions.

Hence, both sides of the law are frantically trying to find Beckert, but for very different reasons. The question is: who will get to him first?

The narrative then moves on to where Beckert is currying favor with his next little victim, when he is spotted by one of the city's criminal low-life, who then follows him around to make sure it's the killer he's found. Satisfied, the man cleverly marks Beckert on his overcoat, with a large, white M, and then runs off to raise the alarm and get help from the rest of the gang.

Thereafter, it's a three-way race: Beckert finds the mark on his back and runs to ground, to hide in a large office block, but not before the criminals see him enter the building; the criminal gangs then assemble a large force that breaks into that block after hours to find him; and the police, alerted by a tripped alarm from the office block, finally rush over to find only one criminal still there, ironically forgotten by his friends.

The sequence in the office block, with Beckert trying to stay hidden, while the searchers get closer with each passing minute, is one of the most suspenseful – and quasi-comedic – actions ever put to film. Years later, Ray Milland appeared in The Big Clock (1948) with a very similar setting which, in turn, was remade with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman in No Way Out (1987) – and both of which I'm sure owe much to Lang's superior effort with M.

It's a great visual story (reason enough to see it, in my opinion), but it's also Germany's first talking film. And, to say anymore about the narrative would spoil it, if you haven't seen it yet.

What's equally great is Lang's filming and direction, using light/dark; high and low angle shots; shot-reverse shot; voice-over narration that matched remote action (a first in cinema); and sequences that tell a story with no words; and all with the consummate originality and skill of a master practitioner. Little wonder that this film constantly ranks within the top 100 of all time.

Special mention must also be given to Peter Lorre, an actor unknown to Hollywood at the time of release. His portrayal of a child-killer is flawless. For the first hour, he hardly says a word, his looks and actions doing more than enough to show his character. Only after he is trapped in the office block does he break his silence, and with devastating effect. Lang then does the unthinkable, almost: he shows Beckert's psychology and vulnerability, with exquisite irony, to the extent that the viewer begins to feel sympathy for the worst of the worst. It's an unforgettable narrative achievement. (In contrast, who has ever felt any real sympathy for Norman Bates, the psychopath from Psycho [1960]?)

Interestingly, when Lorre did get to Hollywood, he appeared in a film called The Stranger on the third floor (1940), in which he again played the part of a psychopathic killer, this time of women. And, of course, who can forget his droll portrayal as Dr Herman Feinstein in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)?

The rest of the cast for M is more than adequate; in fact, I understand that Lang actually used a number of real criminals during shots of the criminal gangs, and especially during the final act. I was particularly taken with the boss of the criminal gangs, Schränker (Gustaf Grundgens) and the two main policemen of this story, Inspectors Lohmann and Groeber (Otto Wernicke and Theodor Loos, respectively).

Some reviewers exhibit frustration with what appears to be an ambiguous end. Considering the times, however, I think there's little doubt about the outcome. You'll have to make your own assessment, obviously.

Highest recommendation for all.
"M" makes you create the violence in your own mind
This masterwork was the joint creation of a husband and wife team, Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, even though Lang's name is the only one featured up front. "M" is much more than just a film about capturing a pedophile murderer. In fact, you never see a murder. Most reviews overlook the clever structure of the script, which was credited to both Lang and von Harbou. Berlin is famous for its dry humor, which is sprinkled throughout the dialog despite the grim theme. Early on there's a scene in a bar in which a group of regulars discuss the latest murder until one man accuses another of possibly being the culprit. And there is a sequence of wry cuts which switch back and forth between a police conference and a gang conference as both separately discuss how to capture the child killer.

Peter Lorre was a stage actor before accepting this film role, and it shows at times. Actually, the film is almost stolen by the sly Otto Wernicke (Inspector Karl Lohmann), whose performance was so strong that Lang brought him back to play the same character in "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" (1933). Another outstanding performance was given by Gustav Gründgens (Schränker, the crime boss). The large cast was matched to the top talents. The cutting is marvelous, as is the camera work. But be careful to avoid the washed-out copies that were sold before the restored version (2004). The English subtitles were clear without interfering with the images, and the sound was very good (by 1931 standards).
"M" for Masterpiece
Really, this an incredible film and lives up to its massive reputation impressively. Lang's "M" is a masterpiece on several levels. On a technical level, it is a brilliant example of German Expressionism and the photography is still as stark, crisp and evocative as anything you will see today. It is also a masterful portrait of a city gripped in fear, and Lang effectively captures mob hysteria and the character of the city and it's inhabitants like few others. And we have Peter Lorre's astonishing performance as the child killer, at once both a horrible monster, and a pathetic and pitiful creature. Often touted as one of the greatest films ever made, "M" certainly measures up to the hype.
The Masterpiece of Peter Lorre
Peter Lorre, one of the greatest of the character actors in cinema history, is at his best as a molester, murderer, who roams the streets. Fritz Lang, who was one of the most versatile directors adds his mark to this. Lorre is terrific in his role, whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King," slinking around. That voice. That persona. It is also about the people who pursue him. One thinks immediately of Hitchcock's "The Lodger" (the first one) where the blood lust takes the place of reason and vigilantism rears its ugly head. We are led on a chase here and the close ups and the editing are masterful. Some would put this in a top ten (if they had actually seen it). It says, "Don't go out at night in the fog." The atmosphere is as responsible for the success of this as any facet of the portrayal of the sick soul that is Lorre.
"L" Before "M"
In an eerie propagandist fashion, the phrase "in the name of the Law" is repeated over the last two scenes of Fritz Lang's "M" as a child killer is brought to justice. If "L" represents the State and the Law, then "M" is meant to represent the Individual (who in this case is a Murderer). Lang boldly asked us way back in 1931, whose rights come first: the State or the Individual? A master of his craft, Lang leaves the question open-ended and let's the audience decide.

"M" is shockingly contemporary in its psychological complexities. It explores the psychology of individualism vs. group think while showcasing how a state of fear can be inflicted upon a populace when a government fails to protect society from a single individual terrorizing the people. The story is fairly straightforward: An elusive citizen begins killing innocent children in a large nameless German city. The media fuels a paranoid frenzy that incites the public. The clueless police begin to raid "the underworld" after the populace is turned into a raving mob because of the failure to capture the killer. "The underworld" comes to a screeching halt as their business is ruined by the police and starts their own manhunt for the killer.

Unlike a modern period piece that attempts to evoke a certain place and time, "M" WAS a certain place and time. Lang, in an almost prophetic sense, captured the state of mind of the German people in 1931 as the Weimar Republic was on the brink of collapse and the Nazi Regime was preparing to take over. When individuals live in a state of fear, as they do in "M", society collapses and the Individual is crushed. Only the State, it seems, can bring order.

"M" is a also a masterpiece for its technical aspects. The way in which Lang uses his camera to move through windows, capture shadows, reflections, empty spaces, and shift points-of-view is staggering even by today's standards. He also played with the new technology of recorded sound with extensive voice-over narration and dialogue used to overlap and transition between scenes. Didn't critics recently praise "Michael Clayton" for utilizing just such a technique as if it was something revolutionary? One can also see a protean style the would eventually birth the Film Noir movement with the creation of tension and suspense in the use of shadows and camera angles.

Yet "M" is not perfect. It has some major flaws. There are no real "characters" in the film to speak of in the modern sense. The film is virtually all built around mood and plot. The only time Lang invites us to emotionally connect is in the opening and closing scenes with a mother of one of the victims, and in the classic scene of Peter Lorre giving his writhing and primal "I can't help it!" speech in front of the kangaroo court of criminals. The mother's grief and Lorre's madness are presented so sparsely and in such a raw form that it becomes too painful to want to connect with them. Another flaw that is often overstated about films from this time period is the slow pace of the early police procedural scenes. These inherent flaws combined with the inherent brilliance of Lang's vision make "M" one of the most challenging films a modern viewer could ever sit through.

What impressed me most about "M" was the subtlety of the symbolism Lang created with his haunting images. As harrowing as the story is, none of the gruesomeness is shown on screen. It's all transmitted to the viewer through the power of suggestion. Is it any wonder Hitler wanted Fritz Lang for his propaganda machine, which thankfully led to Lang fleeing to America? I'll never forget the wide shots of the kangaroo court (and the looks on those people's faces as the killer is brought down the steps for trial) or the vast expanse of that empty warehouse. The scene of the ball rolling in the grass with no one to catch it, the balloon caught in the telephone wires, and the empty domestic spaces the mother has to inhabit after her child has been murdered are the types of scenes that tape into Jungian archetypes and shared fears. The look on Lorre's face as he confesses, the hand of the Law coming down to save Lorre from being lynched, and the ghastly plea from the mother in the final scene will stick with me for the rest of my life.

"M" is a communal nightmare; one that from which we have yet to awake.
A pioneering drama and cinematic landmark
Fritz Lang, dubbed as the "Master of Darkness", achieved new heights with his groundbreaking, 1927 silent masterpiece "Metropolis". Four years later, Lang would create his first 'talking' film in "M", a precursor to the film-noir genre that, even today, serves as the quintessence of crime thriller.

One thing I truly admire about B&W films is its use of light and shadows to manipulate setting, emotions and character development. Lang's visual style was said to mirror his contempt and increasingly pessimistic worldview. In "M", Lang creates an atmosphere of fearful apprehension; men are seen in shadows, in smoke-filled rooms.

This is a powerful and fertile piece of art. Hans Beckert, the disturbed child killer, uncannily portrayed by Peter Lorre, is often seen looking through glass windows or mirrors for expressive purposes. Sometimes we see just his shadow. His words are few and far between, and yet his general frame of mind and emotions are quite apparent to us.

The acting is superb and the story is a riveting one. But it was the cinematography that took my breathe away. One spectacular shot, among many, occurs when Becker is unwillingly dragged down to a basement. His cries for help are quickly silenced as he turns around to the sight of hundreds of criminal faces - silent, eerie, menacing.

The flow of this story is guided by two seemingly distinct groups seeking out the notorious child murderer - the police and the criminals. And yet, they are both cleverly shot (in their dark, smoky rooms) to appear as virtually homologous beings - even the criminals deem this man's freedom as injustice, with this commonality almost blending two morally opposite figures into one force.

The film is masterfully crafted and serves as an important message for parental neglect of their children. As we hear our killer compulsively whistle the same tune from "Peer Gynt," we are continually reminded of the innocence children can see in others and the perils of them acting on that naiveté. "M" is an unpredictably formidable film.
sheer genius!!!
what outstanding movie making!!! M is the most intelligent thriller about a serial killer that ive ever seen. the movie acts on so many levels, the suspense, the trauma, the questions of justice, morality, right and wrong.

the light humour through which the story is woven to provide relief from the mounting tension is simply brilliant. fritz lang is on top of his art. he knows how much tension to weave before letting a bit go. the visualisation is simply awesome, the image of the ball rolling away and the balloon on the electric pole will stay with audience for a long time. the contrast of the still shots with the rapid action shots are another highlight. and its not just the visuals either, the use of Grieg's "In the hall of the Mountain King" is unbelievably eerie.

the premise of how a hunt for a mad serial killer affects the underworlds business is brilliant.fritz lang cooks up a masterpiece here, one to be watched and enjoyed. and to imagine that all this was done 70 years back is unbelievable!!!! bound to rise up to one of my alltime favorite movies!!!

a brilliant 10!!
The very essence of the cinematic storytelling experience
"M" still remains at the top of my list, as the best film I have ever seen.

To think that Fritz Lang had never used sound in any of his previous films, makes one marvel at his deft use of the 'voice', which often continues where the actors do not.

The 'texture' of the film is created by the ever so real and vivid characters; real Berliners, that embody the very soul of that city at that time. You have the sensation of being there, sitting at the table with these characters and eating a 'Wurst' and having a beer. You not only get to know them, but actually feel like you want to know them. It's a form of cinematic surrogate love. You want to be, and are, a part of the experience and events.

Experiencing this film once again, tonight, at the Film Museum in Vienna, I feel satiated, fed with art at it's highest form. I thank all artists who make me not only 'attentive' to the world around me, but are able to captivate me body and soul with their work.

Thank you Fritz Lang,

A masterpiece!
See Also
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