Fritz Lang’s M (1931)

When Jean-Luc Godard asked the Aus­tri­an film­mak­er Fritz Lang in 1961 to name his great­est film, the one most like­ly to last, Lang did not hes­i­tate.

M,” he said.

Made in 1931, near the end of the Weimar Repub­lic, M is Lang’s bril­liant link between silent film and talkies, and between Ger­man Expres­sion­ism and what would even­tu­al­ly be called Film Noir. It tells the sto­ry of a Berlin soci­ety caught up in hys­te­ria over a series of child mur­ders, and of the mas­sive mobi­liza­tion — by police and crim­i­nals alike — to catch the killer.

The Hun­gar­i­an actor Peter Lorre plays Hans Beck­ert, the men­tal­ly dis­turbed mur­der­er. Lorre worked on the film in the day­time while per­form­ing onstage in Bertolt Brecht’s pro­duc­tion of Mann ist Mann in the evenings. His strik­ing per­for­mance in M would cat­a­pult him to inter­na­tion­al star­dom.

The script was writ­ten by Lang and his wife, Thea Von Har­bou. It was inspired by a series of mass mur­ders, cul­mi­nat­ing in a sen­sa­tion­al case of ser­i­al child killings in Düs­sel­dorf. In a 1931 arti­cle, Lang wrote:

The epi­dem­ic series of mass mur­ders of the last decade with their man­i­fold and dark side effects had con­stant­ly absorbed me, as unap­peal­ing as their study may have been. It made me think of demon­strat­ing, with­in the frame­work of a film sto­ry, the typ­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics of this immense dan­ger for the dai­ly order and the ways of effec­tive­ly fight­ing them. I found the pro­to­type in the per­son of the Düs­sel­dorf ser­i­al mur­der­er and I also saw how here the side effects exact­ly repeat­ed them­selves, i.e. how they took on a typ­i­cal form. I have dis­tilled all typ­i­cal events from the pletho­ra of mate­ri­als and com­bined them with the help of my wife into a self-con­tained film sto­ry. The film M should be a doc­u­ment and an extract of facts and in that way an authen­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a mass mur­der com­plex.

Although M was not a great box office suc­cess when it was released in Ger­many in 1931, the film grad­u­al­ly grew in stature and is now firm­ly estab­lished as one of the mas­ter­pieces of 20th cen­tu­ry cin­e­ma. The bril­liance of the film’s nar­ra­tive struc­ture, its clas­sic visu­al images (the killer’s shad­ow appear­ing on a poster announc­ing a reward for his cap­ture, a child’s bal­loon caught in a pow­er line, Lor­re’s bulging eyes as he dis­cov­ers a chalk “M” on his shoul­der) and its inven­tive use of sound, for exam­ple in the ser­i­al killer’s omi­nous whistling of Grieg’s Peer Gynt, have made M one of the most stud­ied and imi­tat­ed films ever made.

In 1959 M was re-released in trun­cat­ed form, and for sev­er­al decades after­ward audi­ences were shown a bad­ly altered 89-minute ver­sion. A restora­tion project was mount­ed in the 1990s. The 109-minute ver­sion above, a result of that project, is clos­er to Lang’s orig­i­nal film. It’s now housed in our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

Relat­ed con­tent:

Metrop­o­lis Restored: Watch a New Ver­sion of Fritz Lang’s Mas­ter­piece

Fritz Lang’s “Licen­tious, Pro­fane, Obscure” Noir Film, Scar­let Street (1945)

Free Film Noir Movies (34 Films in Total)

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