• The Mark of M

    By Stanley Kauffmann

    It’s hard to believe that M was made in 1931. If we allow for the fact that it’s in black and white, it is more engaging to the eye, more incisive in its irony, more firm in its grasp of social complications than most of the films that come along today.

    Take the very first shot. Children are playing in the courtyard of a Berlin tenement. We see them from high above; thus we hover over them. They sing, as children often do in innocent games, of chopping and killing. Our vantage point and their song prepare us for the tone of the whole film.

    Fritz Lang had been directing in Berlin since 1919, and by 1931 he had made more than a dozen films. M was his first sound film, but no one could know that from the film itself. His use of that new instrument, the soundtrack, leaps at once past mere verisimilitude to evocation. Note the shot of the empty loft while we hear a mother call her missing child. Note—an acutely innovative device possible only with sound—that we hear the central character before we see him.

    The screenplay, by Thea von Harbou, then Lang’s wife, deals with a serial killer of children terrorizing Berlin. But this is not a mystery story: we know virtually from the beginning who the criminal is. We see him writing to the press, begging to be caught. The suspense is in the effect of this murderer and his murders on the structure of a large city—how two kinds of order are galvanized by the murderer’s disorder.

    The first order is the usual legal apparatus, government and police. All officialdom is pursuing the killer. But its very efforts evoke another group that wants the killer caught: the criminals, the nonviolent criminals. Police are so thick in the streets, police raids are so frequent, that the pickpockets and safecrackers are having a hard time making a living. The murderer must be caught so that the police will quiet down and the “good” criminals can practice their professions. And to help them, to act as their spies and lookouts, the good criminals engage the guild of beggars, who throng the streets.

    Lang plays these two strata of the city, upper and lower, against each other in almost musical counterpoint, and he drily makes the most of their similarities. But though it’s the underworld that catches the killer, the police would have soon caught him anyway. Lang isn’t interested in a facile lampooning of the police as numbskulls; his satirical eye focuses on the kinship between the two strata.

    The relation of M to Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera—the analogous site in the underworld, the guild of beggars—has been much discussed. No doubt Lang and Harbou knew the Brecht work, but they had a very different view of the subject. Still, another link with Brecht exists through Peter Lorre, who plays the murderer. Lorre (who later became a big American star) had risen to prominence in Berlin through Brecht’s theater work, and at the very same time that M was being shot, he was preparing for a Brecht play. It seems quite possible that Brecht, an exceptional director of actors, contributed privately to Lorre’s basic concept of the murderer as a scurrying, furry little animal, and to the wretch’s outburst when he is brought before the court of criminals.

    The letter M with which he is tagged—for Mörder, German for “murderer”—guarantees that, under the wit and satire, a dark current flows. When the film first appeared in the United States in 1933, critic William Troy wrote: “The modern psychopath, through Peter Lorre’s acting, attains to the dignity of the tragic hero: the fates are now within the protagonist, instead of assailing him from without.” And the ancient Greek sense of fate is heightened by the blind balloon seller. Like Tiresias in Oedipus Rex, the blind man is the one who sees further than others, who fixes the guilt of the offender.

    Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for the New Republic.

7 comments

  • By rootlesscosmo
    May 07, 2010
    01:24 PM

    They sing, as children often do in innocent games, of chopping and killing. Specifically, a song about a real serial killer. A pop ditty of the 20's had the lyric "Warte, warte nur ein Weilchen, bald kommt Liebe auch zu dir"--wait a little while and soon love will come to you too; when police caught the killer Haarmann, who used to turn parts of his victims into potted meat, Berliners sang a parody: "Warte, warte nur ein Weilchen, bald kommt Haarmann auch zu dir, Mit sein kleine Hackelbeilchen macht er Pökelfleisch aus dir" (with his little axe he'll make cured meat of you.) Having the killer Beckert stalking potential victims who are singing this grisly version is a nice touch by von Harbou, sadly lost on most modern viewers.
    Reply
  • By John C
    August 02, 2010
    10:38 PM

    I was going to buy the new edition for the additional rare English language version. Unfortunately it's only available on the Blu-Ray set. I think this is unfair to those who don't have or are yet able to afford Blu-Ray players. This is a marketing ploy to force us to upgrade and an affront to Criterion's loyal fans.
    Reply
  • By Mari V
    August 20, 2010
    02:05 PM

    @John C: for the collectible aspect, maybe...but to be honest, the German language version makes superior watching anyway. This is definitely one of my favourite films of all time; the Criterion restoration is beautifully done, too. ^^
    Reply
  • By John T.
    September 24, 2010
    05:22 PM

    As a lifelong fan of cinema and mostly, the Cinema Macabre, it amazes me that I let so much time go by and never saw this absolute miracle of film. I'm 41 years old and am very ashamed to admit that today i watched "M" for the very first (but not last) time and sat with my mouth hanging open at the beauty I was seeing. I'm at a loss for words as I know anything I can say about this masterpiece has been said, and probably said better by more informed people, but I feel the need to say SOMETHING. "M" by the great Fritz Lang is less a "theatrical" experience than it is a well-rounded, superbly acted (Peter Lorre is incredible!), beautifully directed and enduring work of art in the HIGHEST. This has now become one of my favorite films of all time and with time I can see it climbing right to the very top. They just don't make em like this at all anymore. All the technology in the world can't substitute for creativity, talent, a brilliant story and an even more brilliant way of telling it. THIS is "Cinema" in the highest regards & Art in motion. Thank you Criterion for the bang up job you did on the restoration.
    Reply
  • By Steve Bentley
    December 04, 2010
    02:24 AM

    I wrote my thesis on Fritz Langs' "M". I spent nearly a year dissecting this movie, reading reviews and essays on its complexities, it's social commentary, it's historical value. I got the paper, and I shelved the film. Years later, I was tasked with teaching a group of teenagers about film. These were the kids who truly believed that modern, special-effects laden movies were the same thing. I tried to show them that movies were a document of a time and place, a thought, a feeling. I used small snippets from movies of the past to compare with movies of the present, to show them how everything they had seen had been shown before. I was going to show the police raid on the underground bar, as it had such a vitality to it, a modernism. I ended up watching the entire film. The next day, I walked into that classroom and looked at those apathetic, bored, restless kids. I held up my vhs copy of "M" and said simply, "This reminded me last night of why I wanted to be a filmmaker in the first place." It still does. Oh, in case you don't believe how a classic can make a mark on a modern film, watch this and then watch "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS". Gollum is obviously influenced by the look and sound of Peter Lorre, and his argument with himself at the end of this feature bears a striking resemblance to Lorres' battle at the end of "M". In fact, it very nearly tore me out of my seat in the theater!
    Reply
  • By John C
    September 11, 2011
    04:00 PM

    @Mari V: Yes I'm sure the original is superior to the rare English version but I still want to see how they compare well as own both versions. I just think this exclusion from the re-issued DVD set is unfair and I stand by my reasoning. Criterion replied to my above complaint saying they might offer the English language version of 'M' somehow in the future to the non Blu-Ray viewers. That was a year ago. I'm still waiting.... .' Most recently 'Senso' was issued with its rare English language version on the DVD that I purchased & also on Blu-Ray. Perhaps they learned from my complaint?
    Reply
  • By John C
    July 17, 2013
    12:52 PM

    An update to my previous posts: As of this date, the only way you can watch the rare English version is if you buy the Blu-ray. Now that I own a player, I ordered it. It was worth the wait to view it as a curiosity and an example from the early sound days when films were adapted for foreign audiences. However on the German version the subtitles are difficult to read and frustrating at times. Several reviewers on Amazon also complained. What's up with the folks at Criterion? If we can notice this problem, why didn't their staff see what we see and correct this problem before the disc was ready for sale? There's no excuse for this oversight, especially on an expensive Blu-ray. I recently watched this film on TCM and their subtitles were easy to read. So much for Criterion's advertised pledge of 'highest technical quality.' Buyer beware!
    Reply

Or using your Criterion.com account.

You are logged in to your Criterion.com account as . Log out.