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In 1931 Weimar Germany, the public was on the verge of hysteria over a series of gruesome murder cases. Though M may now seem almost a parable, at the time it was seen as a “ripped from the headlines” drama. The following article by the filmmaker himself originally appeared in the German newspaper Die Filmwoche on May 20, 1931. It was reprinted in Fritz Lang: His Life and Work.
Striding in seven-league boots, the miracles we experience by the hour in our everyday lives have caught up with the 1,001 tales of Scheherazade and left them behind. Or do you think that any remotely normal Central European who needs to get from Berlin to Paris as fast as possible would choose a winged horse if a racing car were available, or a flying carpet if he could take an airplane? When it comes to surpassing the dreams in Aladdin’s garden, there is no need even to think of Baby Green’s subterranean swimming paradise, with its magnificent displays of coral, glass, gold, and lapis lazuli. The Haus Vaterland at Potsdamer Platz or a Luna Park with a semblance of modern management are quite sufficient in the end. You only have to keep your eyes open for what is around you! All the newspapers report human tragedies and comedies, anomalies and universalities, on a daily basis, and these reports are so fantastic, so accidental and romantic—or whatever else you like to call them—that no dramaturge for a big corporation would dare to suggest such material, lest he be confronted with a resounding chorus of derisive laughter at the improbable, chance, or kitschy conflicts. That’s life. So I thought it fitting to reflect the rhythm of our times, the objectivity of the age in which we are living, and to make a film based entirely on factual reports.
Anyone who makes the effort to closely read the newspaper reports about the major homicide cases of the past few years—e.g., the ghastly double murder of the Fehse siblings in Breslau, the Husmann case, or the case of little Hilde Zäpernick, three crimes that are unsolved to this day—will find a strange similarity of events, circumstances that repeat themselves almost as if natural laws were at work, such as the dreadful psychotic fear of the general public, the self-accusations of the mentally inferior, denunciations unleashing the hate and the jealousy that have built up over years of living side by side, attempts to feed the police investigators false leads, sometimes on malicious grounds and sometimes out of excessive zeal.
Bringing out all these things on the screen, separating them from the incidentals, seems to me to confront a film, a film based on factual reports, with a more substantial responsibility than the artistic reproduction of events: the responsibility of sounding a warning from real events, of educating, and in this way ultimately having a preventive effect. It would go beyond the scope of this brief comment to dwell on the means open to such a film to draw attention to the dangers that, given an incessantly growing crime rate, spell threat and, sadly, all too often, disaster for people at large, children and youngsters in particular; to illuminate the ordinariness and banality with which they announce themselves; to educate; and, most important of all, to have a preventive impact. It hardly needs stating that the artistic reproduction of such a murder case implies not only the presentation of events in concentrated form but also the extraction of typical phenomena and the typification of the killer. For this reason, the film should give the impression at certain points of a moving spotlight, revealing with greatest clarity the thing on which its cone of light is directed at the time: the grotesqueness of an audience infected with a murder psychosis, on the one hand, and the gruesome monotony with which an unknown murderer, armed with a few candies, an apple, a toy, can spell disaster for any child in the street, any child outside the protection of his family or the authorities.
There is one motif used in this case that seems to illustrate particularly well how fantastic real events have become: the idea that the criminal caste, Berlin’s underworld, would take to the streets on its own initiative to seek out the unknown murderer, so as to evade greater police activity, is taken from a factual newspaper report and seemed to me such compelling cinematic material that I lived in constant fear that someone else would exploit this idea before me.
If this film based on factual reports helps to point an admonishing and warning finger at the unknown, lurking threat, the chronic danger emanating from the constant presence among us of compulsively and criminally inclined individuals, forming, so to speak, a latent potential that may devour our lives in flames—and especially the lives of the most helpless among us—and if the film also helps, perhaps, even to avert this danger, then it will have served its highest purpose and drawn the logical conclusion from the quintessential facts assembled in it.