Many ‘classic’ films are perceived as celluloid All-Bran, to be digested first and enjoyed second. But, make no mistake: Fritz Lang’s serial killer procedural M (his first talkie) is that rare thing: a cine-landmark that remains accessible, relevant and compelling.
It’s a picture that stares down its themes – child murder, the double-edged sword of justice – with a gimlet-eyed starkness that’s still bracing. Imagine how it must have felt to 1930s audiences…
As Peter Lorre’s child murderer stalks Berlin, the city’s fragile social structure starts to crumble: the criminal underworld, unable to “do business” under police pressure, decide to track down the killer themselves.
Startlingly modern in both technique and subject, Lang’s film (he considered it his finest) was innovative in its use of voiceover and handheld footage. It’s also one of the key touchstones for ’40s noir. Little wonder that, as Anton Kaes explains in one of two commentaries, it often introduces film courses.
The opening alone is a masterclass in stripped-down suggestiveness: Lorre’s off-screen whistling of ‘Peer Gynt’ foreshadows horrors unseen, which are then confirmed by a child’s ball rolling slowly to a halt…
The unrestored English-language version included here – mostly overdubbed, though with some re-shot dialogue (notably Lorre’s astonishing final outburst) – is a curio. But it’s worth a glance if only to see how well they’ve polished the original.
There’s also a 1968 interview with Lang, in which the director discloses tales of meeting Goebbels before fleeing Germany in 1934. As Lang deadpans, his film about silent paranoia giving rise to brutal mob mentality “seemed to have annoyed Goebbels terribly…”
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