Film: M

"Just you wait, it won't be long.
The man in black will soon be here.
With his cleaver's blade so true.
He'll make mincemeat out of YOU!"

Fritz Lang's 1931 masterpiece about a serial child killer in Weimar Berlin and the people who try to find him: the police, the criminal underworld, and the city's beggars. One of the first examples of Film Noir, M provides not only stark black and white images, but also a haunting leitmotif throughout the film.

Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) whistles "In the Hall of the Mountain King" by Edvard Grieg from Peer Gynt, as he buys a balloon from a blind balloon seller for a little girl named Elsie Beckmann. A scene later, Elsie's mother looks for her and can't find her, shouting her name as the camera shows the balloon drifting in the sky.

Police inspector Karl Lohmann, meanwhile, is investigating the serial killings with modern policework, such as fingerprinting and handwriting analysis. The criminal underworld, too, is searching for the killer, since more police on the street is bad business for them and they, too, are disgusted by the killer targeting children.

When Hans whistles "In the Hall of the Mountain King" again in front of the blind balloon seller, the seller tells one of the criminals, who marks Hans with a chalk M on his jacket, so they can follow him. The criminal fraternity goes to more ruthless lengths than the police to catch the killer, and cause a great deal of collateral damage to people and private property, before finally closing in on him. The criminals kidnap Beckert and bring him to a Kangaroo Court, where Hans makes an impassioned speech about how he should not be blamed for the murders since he can't help himself, he can't help that he's insane. Despite the nature of the court, the criminal appointed as Beckert's legal representative tries hard to defend him fairly. The 'prosecutor' takes the stance that either for his crimes (if he is not insane) or for his insanity, Beckert has forfeited his right to live and must be exterminated. Beckert desparately tries to he explain that he can't help being this way. The criminals are about to kill Hans when the police bust in and arrest both him and his captors.

As Hans is about to be sentenced by five judges, the mothers outside the courtroom say it won't bring back their children. Elsie's mother says they should have kept better watch. "We, too, should keep a closer watch on our children. All of us."

The film contains examples of:

  • Adult Fear: Don't leave your kids alone even for a second.
  • Anti-Villain: Hans.
  • Arc Words: "Who is the murderer?"
  • Badass Long Coat: Der Schränker's leather overcoat. Although see Putting on the Reich below; he's not a very likable character.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Beckert is brought to trial, but the climax establishes that neither execution nor medical treatment seem to be a totally fitting sentence, and it won't bring back the kids anyway.
  • Black Cap Of Death: Hans Beckert's sentence is never revealed, but consider that one of the five judges puts on a black cap, and his time on Earth may soon be over.
  • Character Signature Song: Hans Beckert always eerily whistles Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" when he goes somewhere.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Beckert's compulsive whistling, which leads to his identification as the child murderer.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The blind balloon seller.
  • Dramatic Drop: When Franz tells Inspector Lohmann that they broke into the office building to catch the child murderer, the cigar he was smoking falls out of his mouth.
  • Dream Melody: "In the Hall of the Mountain King"
  • Empathy Doll Shot: One of the oldest examples: Elsie's ball and balloon in the opening scene.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: A complicated example. Hans disgusts all the criminal bigwigs because he kills children, but they're only after him because he interferes with their crimes. The "defense attorney" notes the hypocrisy of wanted murderers standing in judgment of another murderer. Hans' final speech also calls them out on their hypocritical "standards", pointing out that he does what he does because he is insane and cannot help himself, whereas they simply can't be bothered to learn an honest trade.
  • Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: "Extra! Extra!", shout all the paperboys carrying news of the Beckmann murder.
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: Der Schränker ("The Safecracker").
  • Foreign Remake: Joseph Losey's mostly-forgotten 1951 version transposes the story to post-WWII Los Angeles.
  • Foreshadowing: The game the children play with the ball at the start of the film.
  • German Expressionism: A late example.
  • Gollum Made Me Do It: Beckert's defense. He's driven by a compulsion that he can't resist.
  • Gory Discretion Shot:
    • Interesting version; In one scene, the Thieves are torturing a watchman for information in a glass-windowed room, with a crowd of beggars watching from outside. When the leader signals for the torture to start, the beggars move up against the windows so nothing can be seen.
    • Also, Elsie's death at the beginning.
  • The Great Depression: A rare European example.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Even the child murderer is not without his sympathetic side.
  • Holding the Floor: Beckert's long speech at his trial.
  • Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: Hans again. In fact, Peter Lorre was typecasted as this role for years afterward.
  • Insanity Defense: The climax features an analysis of whether it's fair to punish a man for crimes he was compelled by insanity to do.
  • Ironic Nursery Rhyme: The children's singing in the beginning and "In the Hall of the Mountain King" to an extent.
  • Joker Jury: The criminals' court at the end (although Hans is far from a hero).
  • Leitmotif: "In the Hall of the Mountain King" used for creepy effect. In fact, M practically created the cinematic leitmotif.
  • Kangaroo Court: The criminal underworld sets up a court to try Beckert, but it's clear from the beginning that they have no intention to do anything but kill him.
  • Match Cut: A crime boss talks to his fellow crime bosses about the problems the child murderer is causing, due to the increased police presence. With a sweep of his arm, he says "I invite—". Cut to another person at a different meeting, sweeping his arm and saying "—your views, gentlemen." The second meeting is a different group of crooks discussing the same subject. The rest of the scene continues to cut between three different meetings in a similar way.
  • Murderers Are Rapists: Very, very subtly implied, and all off-screen. One of the police departments on the child-killer case is a sexual crimes division, and one policeman says to another concerning the child-killer's victims "You know what state we find them in after that." Also, everyone was specifically looking for a male perpetrator.
  • Neighborhood Friendly Gangsters: Deconstructed. The vigilante criminals are only interested in ending the manhunt to restore their criminal endeavors. Hans also points out that their crimes have even less justification than his own.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Lohmann in his bodily build, mannerisms and modus operandi is very closely modeled on Ernst Gennat (1880-1939), the head of Berlin's Mordinspektion (set up in 1926, the world's first murder squad, i. e. police section specializing in the investigation of murders), who introduced many innovations to investigation procedures and who among other things headed the investigation of the Grossman and Kürten murders and who may have coined the term "serial killer" with reference to the latter. In his day Gennat was internationally famous and known to Berliners by affectionate nicknames like "the Buddha of the Alex" (i. e. the police headquarters on Alexanderplatz).
  • No Ending: Not only does the movie come to a close right before Hans is given a verdict, there aren't even any credits, not even a "The End" card like most every film had even in those days. The film cuts to black as the grieving mother whispers "all of us" (see the introduction above), and then it suddenly stops.
  • Not-So-Innocent Whistle: The killer has a super-creepy whistle.
  • Oh Crap!:
    • The climactic moment when the Mob are just about to tear Beckert to shreds, but all of them come to a dead stop and slowly raise their hands in surrender when they realize who's standing on the stairs.
    • Before that, the very slow pan around the room after Hans is shoved down the stairs, showing the Joker Jury staring at him in unmoving complete silence.
    • And, of course, the famous scene where he realizes his coat has been marked and that he's being followed. In fact, this is mostly Beckert's reaction throughout the entire second half of the film.
  • Organ Grinder: One is among the beggars tasked with keeping their eyes out for the murderer.
  • One-Letter Title: The "M" stands for ''Mörder", aka murderer.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: For a few minutes, the police procedural part switches into documentary style, complete with voice-over, diagrams, and a giant compass drawing circles on a city map.
  • Pædo Hunt: The hunt for Hans.
  • Police Procedural: The police part of the movie is possibly the Ur-Example of this trope.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Part of the reason why the criminals want to stop Hans so much? His presence increases the number of police operating, which in turn interferes with their ability to break the law and get away with it.
  • Putting on the Reich: A fairly prophetic example, since the Nazis weren't in power yet, Der Schränker's long leather coat, leather gloves and bowler hat nonetheless invokes the fashion sense of already-rising propagandist Joseph Goebbels (and later, the Gestapo). Somewhat fittingly, the actor was very popular with the Nazis, though he himself was probably not one. The film was originally titled "The Devil Among Us" as a deliberate reference to the then-up and coming Nazi Party. Unfortunately, they figured it out and Lang was forced to change it.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: In his impassioned defense, Hans is quick to note the essential hypocrisy of the court of criminals trying him; he does bad things, but he commits abhorrent acts because he is insane and cannot make himself stop, but they choose to be criminals when they could instead earn an honest living.
  • Silence Is Golden: Because a silent film was expected to have accompaniment throughout this film is actually quieter than most silent films. The silence of shots like the slow reveal of the mob backed court, and, later, the police coming to stop the mobsters from killing the serial killer makes them so much tenser.
  • Serial Killer: Of little girls.
  • Shaming the Mob: This is what Hans tries to do. It doesn't work. Except on the audience.
  • Shout-Out: The m sign left behind by the villain inspired the plot of the Blake and Mortimer album The Yellow "M"
  • Stab the Salad: After luring in his next victim, Hans pulls out a switchblade, which he uses to cut an orange.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Hans turns out to be one in the end, in spite of his horrific crimes.
  • Talent Double: Peter Lorre couldn't actually whistle, so Lang provided it in a hidden Creator Cameo.
  • Thieves' Guild: Several of them, it seems, one for each major division of the trade.
  • Token Good Teammate: To Beckert's surprise, his "defense counsel" at the Criminals' trial actually tries to defend him.
  • Tragic Villain: Hans can't help the fact that he's a child murderer.
  • Trope Maker
  • The Unreveal: Beckert's sentence. The judges are just about to announce it when the film cuts to a mourning mother, who says it doesn't matter, because it won't bring back her child.
  • Vehicle Vanish: One of the first examples?
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Fritz Lang based the story on several serial killers who had plagued Germany in recent years, including Fritz Haarmann, Karl Grossmann, and Peter Kürten, the "Vampire of Düsseldorf." Haarman and Grossmann are mentioned by name, and Haarmann is the real subject of the children's rhyhme at the beginning. It should be noted that Fritz denied it because it was seen as being tastelessly (for presenting him as sympathetic) Ripped from the Headlines.
  • Villain Protagonist: Hans Beckert, serial child murderer.
  • Weimar Republic: In its later years.
  • Weird Trade Union: The Beggars' League (taken from Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera).
  • What Is Evil?: Beckert is pursued by the city's criminal underworld, because the intensive police manhunt is interfering with their business and because they resent police inquiries that imply that they might be associated with a child murderer. When they conduct a mock trial of Beckert, he attacks their sense of moral superiority, declaring that he does what he does because he's haunted by unwanted compulsions he can't resist, while they do what they do because they freely chose crime instead of honest work.
  • Writing Indentation Clue: The murderer writes a letter to the newspaper, using a single sheet of paper, a pencil and a wide windowsill in his apartment as a desk. When the police raid the apartment, they find a partial impression of the words in the letter in the wood. In this case, they already knew what had been written; the indentations were, instead, proof of who had written it.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Ugh.