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Film / M

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"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!"

M (original German title M Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder, "A City Searches for a Murderer") is a 1931 crime film written and directed by Fritz Lang, from a script co-written by his then-wife Thea von Harbou.

Lang's first sound film, it is about a serial child killer in Weimar Republic-era Berlin and the people who try to find him: the police, the criminal underworld, and the city's beggars. One of the earliest examples of Film Noir, M provides stark black-and-white imagery along with a haunting leitmotif heard throughout the film.

As the film opens, that leitmotif — "In the Hall of the Mountain King", from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt — is whistled by Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), as he buys a balloon for a little girl named Elsie Beckmann from a blind street vendor. A scene later, Elsie hasn't come home from school and her worried mother shouts her name as the camera shows the abandoned balloon drifting up into the telephone wires.

Police inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), meanwhile, is investigating the serial killings using modern policework, such as fingerprinting and handwriting analysis. The criminal underworld is also 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.

The film is widely regarded as an important masterpiece in the history of cinema, and Lang himself considered it to be his Magnum Opus. It also catapulted Peter Lorre to screen stardom.

Was remade in the U.S. in 1951 in a version directed by Joseph Losey, starring David Wayne as the murderer and updating the setting to postwar Los Angeles. There was another remake in the form of a 2019 Austrian Mini Series by TVNOW (M Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder), starring Sarah Viktoria Frick, Christian Doleza, Lore Niklas, Gerhard Liebmann (as M), Moritz Bleibtreu and Udo Kier. It too updates the setting, to Present Day Vienna.

The film contains examples of:

  • Arc Words: "Who is the murderer?"
  • Badass Longcoat: 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, with the bonus of criminals who tried to kill him being arrested as well, 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.
  • Butt-Monkey: Franz, one member of the gang that breaks into the office building to find Beckert, gets left behind when everyone bails out after the silent alarm is tripped. He is arrested and questioned by the police, and finally tricked by Lohmann (through a false statement that one of the watchmen has died) into revealing the reason for the break-in and where Beckert is being taken.
  • 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 primarily after him because the police looking for him interfere 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. On the other hand, there is a difference between a common criminal or mobster, and a child rapist and serial killer, and the fact they put him to trial, plus the anger they feel against him, lends argument to the fact that, despite some leveñ of hypocrisy in their actions, they are truly disgusted by his actions.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Der Schränker ("The Safecracker").
  • Evil Versus Evil: Most of the conflict happens between the child killer and the organised criminals, many of whom were killers themselves (just of adults). Inspector Lohmann and the authorities only play a minor role as a third party.
  • Exact Words: From the "prosecutor": "everybody in this room is an expert on law! Why, there's dozens of years of experience between them!" Of course, there's a difference between being an experienced attorney and having been many times in court, but that's not what Beckert was asking specifically, was he?
  • Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: "Extra! Extra!", shout all the paperboys carrying news of the Beckmann murder.
  • Foreign Remake: Joseph Losey's mostly-forgotten 1951 U.S. 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: Both sides are black with shades of grey. Even a child murderer is not without his sympathetic side.
  • Holding the Floor: Beckert's long speech at his trial.
  • Honor Among Thieves: Der Schränker makes it clear that the mob intends to kill Hans for his heinous crimes, but he gives Hans the rights to defend himself and even a good lawyer just to show that even criminals like him are more honorable than him.
  • The Hunter Becomes the Hunted: You can pinpoint when Hans Beckert discovers he is being watched and is about to be caught to the moment when he discovers the chalk "M" on his shoulder. Ironically, this is because his intended victim points it out to him.
  • Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: Hans again. In fact, Peter Lorre was typecast as this role for years afterward. Subverted in that Hans Beckert managed to kill several children and successfully evade the police in the first part of the film and the time before and is only this because of his pathetic nature and guilt after being caught.
  • 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.
  • It's All About Me: Hans's impassioned speech in his own defense pretty much ignores the pain and suffering he caused and would have continued to cause if allowed to roam free in favor of complaining about how unfair it was for people to blame him for his actions. Then again seeking treatment for being a pedophile in those days are even worse than today so while being a Dirty Coward it's not like it's an easy choice.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Beckert is an insane child murderer, but his condemnation of the hypocrisy of the 'court' standing in judgement of him isn't entirely without merit.
    • The prosecutor of the mob trial may be a criminal but he does have a point that whether or not Hans is crazy he is a threat to the children of Germany regardless and killing him would make them more safe.
  • Joker Jury: The criminals' court at the end (although Hans is far from a hero). They even mockingly claim to be experts of the law simply from serving time in prison.
  • 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.
  • Leitmotif: "In the Hall of the Mountain King" used for creepy effect. In fact, M practically created the cinematic leitmotif.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": The furious audience of the Kangaroo Court is about to leap on Beckert and tear him to shreds, when they all notice something behind the camera, suddenly freeze — and begin to put their hands up. (It's because Lohmann and his men have just arrived to arrest them all.)
  • 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 men — this time detectives — discussing the same subject. The rest of the scene continues to cut between the 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 catching the killer so the police will stop disrupting their own illegal activities with constant raids and interrogations. 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 police Homicide division), who introduced many innovations to investigation procedures, e.g. becoming the first man to use the new medium of television to ask the public for information relevant to an ongoing investigation. Gennat among other things headed the investigation of the Grossman and Kürten murders and coined the term "serial killer" with reference to the latter. In his day Gennat was internationally famousnote  and was known to Berliners by affectionate nicknames like "the Buddha of the Alex" (i. e. the police headquarters on Alexanderplatz).
  • No Ending: Probably a Logical Extreme example. 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 you", and then it suddenly stops.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: We never find out exactly what the murderer did to his victims; suffice it to say that the state of the girls' bodies horrified even hardened police officers. We also never learn the sentence passed on the killer — imprisonment, execution, or commitment to a mental hospital (all of which could inflict their own particular horrors on a convict).
  • Not-So-Innocent Whistle: The killer has a super-creepy whistle.
  • Oh, Crap!: 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.
    • See also Mass "Oh, Crap!" above.
  • One-Letter Title: The "M" stands for ''Mörder", aka murderer.
  • Organ Grinder: One is among the beggars tasked with keeping their eyes out for the 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.
  • Pdo Hunt: The child-targeting Serial Killer is implied to also assault his victims sexually.
  • 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: What may be seen as a "prophetic" example, since the Nazis weren't in power yet: Der Schränker's long leather coat may be seen as foreshadowing The Gestapo; more plausibly his leather-coat and rhetoric have been seen as alluding to Joseph Goebbels, then chief of propaganda of the Nazi party and their Gauleiter (regional head of the party organisation) in Berlin. Although neither the Gestapo nor Goebbels were known for sporting bowler hats or walking-canes. The Schränker was portrayed by Gustaf Gründgens, who later continued to rise to fame and fortune under the Nazis (partly because Hermann Goering was a fan of his), which became the subject of Klaus Mann's Roman Clef Mephisto. The story that the film was originally entitled Mörder unter uns ("Murderer(s) Among Us") and had to be given a different title due to pressure from the Nazis is a legend which Fritz Lang at different times confirmed and denied.
  • "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.
  • Reluctant Psycho: Hans, as encapsulated in his defense speech seen under Tragic Villain.
  • Serial Killer: Of little girls.
  • Shaming the Mob: This is what Hans tries to do. It doesn't work. Except on some audience members.
  • Shout-Out: The M used to mark Beckert inspired the plot of the Blake and Mortimer album The Yellow "M" and also the 13th Franka album, De dertiende letter ("The thirteenth letter") by Henk Kuijpers.
  • 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.
  • Sinister Whistling: In what is probably the Trope Maker, the titular child killer compulsively whistles "In the Hall of the Mountain King" right before he tracks down his victims. This is employed to great effect, with many scenes keeping the killer off-screen; meaning the whistle itself carries the dread. The tune itself contains multiple pauses and breaks in odd places, giving it an additional sense of wrongness. As Peter Lorre could not whistle, director Fritz Lang provided the iconic tune himself.
  • Stab the Salad: After luring in his next victim, Hans pulls out a switchblade, which he uses to peel an orange.
  • Suspect Is Hatless: The detectives complain that while they're under massive public pressure to catch the killer, the vague descriptions of the killer given by witnesses don't help.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Hans turns out to be one in the end, in spite of his horrific crimes.
  • The Sociopath: What Hans would probably be diagnosed with nowadays, and probably his true character.
  • 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, and makes a powerful argument at the trial as to why Beckert should be handed over to the police instead of being lynched by the mob.
  • Tragic Villain: Hans can't help the fact that he's a child murderer.
    Hans: But I, I can't help myself! I have no control over this! This evil thing inside me, the fire, the voices, the torment!... It's there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently, but I can feel it there. It's me, pursuing myself. I want to escape, to escape from myself. But it's impossible. I can't escape. I have to obey it. I have to run endless streets. I want to escape, to get away. And I'm pursued by ghosts. Ghosts of mothers. And of those children. They never leave me. They are there, always there. Always, except when I do it. When I... Then I can't remember anything.
  • The Un-Reveal: Beckert's sentence. The judges are just about to announce it when the film cuts to three mourning mothers, one of whom says that no sentence will bring the victims back.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Hans, a pedophile and murderer of children.
  • Wouldn't Hurt a Child: The criminal underworld may be scum who, as Hans accurately points out, can't be bothered to learn an honest trade, but they draw the line at hurting children and are appalled by Hans' actions.
  • Writing Indentation Clue: The murderer writes a letter to the newspapers, using a single sheet of paper, a red pencil, and a wooden table or desk. When the police search Beckert's apartment, they find partial impressions of the letter's words in a windowsill, as well as bits of red pencil lead. In this case, they already knew what had been written; the indentation and lead bits were, instead, proof that it had been written there specifically.