Cinema and its audiences have always been fascinated by serial killers. Back in the late 1920s/early 1930s, Viennese Director Fritz Lang was fixated on real-life Düsseldorf serial killer Peter Kürten and wanted a ‘fresh face’ to portray him on the big screen.
Lang, whose masterpiece Metropolis was also recently restored, found his serial killer, on the Berlin stage in 1929 where Peter Lorre was rapidly becoming a staple of Brechtian theatre. Reluctant to give up his stage career, Lorre filmed M by day and rehearsed Mann ist Mann (A Man’s A Man) for Brecht at night. With his goggle-eyed round face, slight accent and strange voice, Lorre makes a creepy, and surprisingly vulnerable, schizophrenic.
Lorre went on to appear in many films, but a restored print of M, the elements of which were almost lost to posterity, supports the argument that this, his first major screen role, is his best. But right now you can judge for yourself. To commemorate the restoration of the film that premiered on 11 May 1931 in Berlin, and the 50th anniversary of Lorre’s death, the BFI is scheduling a Peter Lorre retrospective throughout September.
One of the more remarkable features of M for the 21st century viewer is the mock trial scene at the end. Hans Beckert’s (M’s) ‘defence counsel’ (played by Rudolf Blümner), one of the lynch mob who had previously been out to get him, argues for Beckert to be hospitalised on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The argument is impressively persuasive and modern. The script, by Lang with Thea von Harbou, suggests an understanding of mob rule and hysteria, Freud and mental illness. The crowd is out for blood and rejects the defence counsel’s pleas, but Lorre’s tortured description of the ‘voices’ that his character hears that compel him to kill, gives them cause to pause.
There are, of course, other wonderful moments in a film that is part thriller, part police procedural, and part portrait of a city in panic. The unusual plot twist is that the beggars and low-lives form their own police force to capture the serial killer who is giving them a bad name. They fear the additional police scrutiny. The criminals are more effective at tracking down the killer than the police force because they live on the streets. Although there is some humour in the police scenes, there is only horror in the early scenes of Frau Beckmann (Ellen Widmann), realising that her adorable young daughter is the latest victim of the serial killer. Like so much of M, these scenes still have the power to disturb the modern viewer.
Emil Hasler’s art and set decoration; Fritz Arno Wagner’s and Karl Vass’s cinematography combine to give the film its tense atmosphere. The contrast between shadow and light, busy city streets with empty alley ways, a crowded flat and an eerily empty one, add to the feeling of dread that holds us captivated. You will, undoubtedly ask yourself why the killer does not simply remove his coat once he discovers the mark ‘M’ written on the back that identifies him. Hitchcock would never have allowed this question to linger in the audience’s mind. But this is a minor criticism in a masterpiece that is worth returning to.
Joyce Glasser – MT film reviewer