Summarizing Fritz Lang’s masterpiece “M” is a near impossible task. The film is just short of two hours (117 minutes, to be exact), and yet leapfrogs through so many genres and styles during that time that pinning down exactly what “M” is proves to be difficult.
The film opens with the sound of children playing a word game: One child stands encircled by other children and recites a poem, on each syllable of the poem she points at a different child in the circle and whichever child it is being pointed at when the poem is over loses. It’s normal kid stuff; used to do it all the time when I was little, and chances are so did you! But the poems and songs we used weren’t quite as sinister as the one these children are singing.
“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!”
One of the mother’s overhears the children’s game from a balcony and tells the children to stop singing that horrible song; a different mother tells her that as long as the children are singing they know they are safe.
The song is topical to these kids, you see, for a killer is on the loose who prays only on children; he finds children in the streets, lures them off someplace, and kills them. The murders never occur on screen, to be exact there is not a single drop of blood in the entire film; everything the murderer does occurs off-screen, and, ultimately, inside of our minds.
This is where the film starts; the mother who said that they’ll know the children are safe as long as they sing, begins to worry why her daughter Elsie is not home from school yet.
The poor mother moves through the apartment building calling her: “Elsie! Elsie!” But we already know what has happened to the poor child. While playing on the sidewalk with a ball she begins to bounce the ball up on a large column where a poster written about the murderer is hanging; then a shadow moves into the frame obscuring the poster. By the time the mother begins her desperate search it is already too late for little Elsie.
Now we move on to the Berlin police who are trying to find and capture the criminal. So one night the police raid a bar where criminals frequently gather together. This causes an issue for the crime syndicates: as long as the murderer is still on the streets, the police are going to continue raiding the locations the crime syndicates operate out of. So the leaders of the different syndicates gather together for a meeting to discuss what is to be done; their conclusion is that they must capture the murderer themselves!
They hatch an elaborate plan which involves the beggars in the city — the thought being that no one really pays attention to the beggars, so they are naturally the best option for trying to keep track of the murderer. The scene of the criminals discussing their plans is intercut with a scene of the police also formulating a plan of action. The scene crisscrosses and leaps back and forth between the two discussions masterfully.
Eventually the criminals chase the murderer (Peter Lorre in his first starring role) into an office building. At this point the film moves from being a crime film to being no less than a heist movie. The criminals carefully put together a plot to break into the office building, methodically search it room by room, find the criminal and then take him away all before the police arrive. After this the film switches gears again and turns into a sort of courtroom drama. Peter Lorre’s character, Hans Beckartt, is given a lawyer (sort of) and has to defend himself against the criminals, who are serving as the judges, witnesses, and prosecutors.
As I said before, “M” effortlessly leapfrogs through genres and movements as if it were a piece of music constructed to rise and fall in tempo and pace. The suspense builds to dramatic heights, and yet the quiet moments are softly spoken and carefully worded. Lorre gives what might be the finest performance of his entire career, being at once disgusting and terrifying; a rabid dog you feel the need to shoot to put out of his misery.
My favorite scene in the film comes at about the midway point; Peter Lorre’s character has picked his next victim, and he takes her inside of a candy store to buy her sweets. When the two of them return to the sidewalk, the little girl, only for a moment, turns her back to Lorre, who instantly pulls a switchblade which was hidden in the palm of his hand. The pay-off of the scene is terrifying.
I hope that I don’t sound as if I am gushing, but if I do it’s because I am; “M” is probably my favorite movie of all time.
Here is the film on YouTube courtesy of OpenFlix. (make sure you turn on the “captions” option, if you decide to watch on YouTube, however, as the film is in German)
(apologies, I can’t get the embed to work)
The film is also available on DVD and blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, which is how I would recommend watching the film. The Criterion blu-ray is phenomenal in both sound and picture quality.