Saturday Night Cinema: M


Tonight’s Saturday Night Classic is Fritz Lang’s, “M”. This film is nothing less than a masterpiece. It created the serial killer genre, long before Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en. M was not only the originator of the genre, but arguably remains it preeminent entry.

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Be afraid. Be properly afraid. The greatest creation of Fritz Lang’s career remains one of the most disturbing movies of his, or any, film-making era. Kevin Maher, Times (UK)

Few films are gripping and effective 82 years after their original release, but this one surely is. Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

Lang was an extraordinary filmmaker and his CV is littered with classics – the Mabuse films (1922, 1932, 1960), Metropolis (1927), Fury (1936), The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat (1953) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) are merely the best known – but he himself regarded M, his first sound film, as his best, and it’s not hard to see why. Apart from anything else, it’s quite remarkable on a technical level: Lang’s highly inventive and sophisticated use of sound made it one of the most enduringly influential talkies, while the camerawork, by Fritz Arno Wagner, ensured that many of its images remain genuinely iconic.

M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Moerder (1931)

The roots of noir go back to German Expressionism, and there’s no movie that’s more German, Expressionist, or noir than Fritz Lang’s masterful — and finally restored — M

(1931). While this story of the pursuit of a child-killer lacks one of the crucial elements of the genre, the femme fatale, the other components of noir are here in force. There’s the dark cityscape, an unstable environment in which children play in the street singing chants about “black bogeymen” and murderers. There’s the paranoid pathology of the individual in the person of the twisted Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), who courts and kills his young victims for reasons he can’t express or fathom, and a frenzied mob that brings its own brand of justice against him. Many of the classic noirs of the 1940s and later owe a debt to M’s obsessive attention to the details of the manhunt, with the most minute aspects of police procedure rendered. Most important, though, is the sense of doom that colors the film, a fatalism Lang renders through chiaroscuro lighting effects and enormous high-angle shots that suggest a malevolent spiritual presence hovering above the city and guiding its denizens to their doom.

is based on the real-life case of child-killer Peter Kurten, the “monster of Dusseldorf,” whose crimes of the 1920s were still recent enough to resonate in the viewer’s mind. The film is divided into three
distinct sections. In the first, Lang introduces killer, victim, and the desolate urban landscape in which the crimes occur. The style here is oblique and impressionistic — shots of a blind man selling balloons, a little girl taking the hand of a stranger, a ball rolling down a hillside and coming ominously to rest. The director’s discreet rendering of the murder of Elsie Beckmann subtly implicates the viewer in what is not shown — as Lang wrote, “forcing each individual member of the audience to create the gruesome details of the murder according to his personal imagination.” Typical of the powerful sensibility at work here is a shot of the balloon Beckert purchased for Elsie, a crudely formed clown; separated from her hand during one of the film’s unseen “gruesome details,” it ends up helplessly trapped by telephone wires.

It’s generally agreed that M was critical in hastening Lang’s departure from Germany in 1934. The  Nazis weren’t thrilled by the film’s original title, Murderers Among Us; they assumed it was about them and tried to squash the production, even going so far as issuing death threats. Of course, in a sense they were correct. M is about more than the landscape of an unbalanced mind. With its palpable air of dread and its direct indictment of mob mentality, the film draws with frightening precision the dark contours of Nazi groupthink.

Click below to view the film














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