Fritz Lang

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a child.
a tune.
a murderer.



  • directed: Fritz Lang, 1931
  • prod co: Nero Film, A. G. Ver. Star Film GmbH
  • prod: Seymour Nebenzal
  • sc: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, from an article by Egon Jacobson
  • dial: Thea von Harbou
  • photo: Fritz Arno Wagner, Gustav Rathje, Karl Vash
  • sd ed: Paul Falkenberg
  • art dir: Carl Vollbrecht, Emil Hasler
  • backdrop photos: Horst von Harbou
  • mus:
      excerpts from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg ('murderer's theme' whistled by Fritz Lang)
  • sd: Adolf Jansen
  • rt: 120 minutes
  • premiere: Berlin, 11 May 1931



  • Peter Lorre (the murderer)
  • Otto Wernicke (Inspector Karl Lohmann)
  • Gustav Grundgens (Schraenker)
  • Theo Lingen (Baurenfaenger)
  • Theodor Loos (Commissioner Groeber)
  • Georg John (peddler)
  • Ellen Widman (Frau Beckmann)
  • Inge Landgut (Elsie Beckmann)
  • Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur (Chief of Police)
  • Paul Kemp (pickpocket)
  • Franz Stein (minister)
  • Rudolf Blummer (defence lawyer)
  • Karl Platen (watchman)
  • Gerhard Bienert (police secretary)
  • Rosa Veletti (owner of the Crocodile Club)
  • Hertha von Walter (prostitute)
  • Fritz Odemar (safe-breaker)
  • Fritz Gnass (burglar)

    german premiere poster

    m  :   f r a g m e n t s   f r o m   a   f i l m

    It is astonishing that Fritz Lang's first sound film, M, should already have so completely mastered the new medium that it could not have been made with the same effect as a silent film. In the opening, a large shadow falls across a poster warning the public about the murderer, just as a little girl tosses her ball against it. We only hear a voice saying, 'What a nice ball you have. What is your name?'; and we feel the implied threat all the more for not actually seeing the man.


    The scene switches to the girl's mother who is making lunch for her. She anxiously puts the absent's child's meal back into the oven to keep it warm. In the next shot we see the unknown man for the first time, but only from behind, as he buys Elsie a balloon froma blind pedlar. He begins to whistle, off-key, a few bars of Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King. The whistled tune becomes a gruesome leitmotif indicating that the murderer is on the prowl.


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    Frau Beckmann, worried about her daughter, leans over the bannister of the stair-well and cries, 'Elsie!' The cry resounds through the block of flats and an empty loft. The murder is not shown. Instead Lang supplies a series of images - Frau Beckmann's cries echoing over shots of the empty building, Elsie's vacant place at table, Elsie's ball rolling from beneath a bush and her new balloon caught in telegraph wires - and leaves the audience to imagine the crime itself. The final shot of the sequence is of a paperseller who shouts out the latest headlines: a new murder!


    Panic grows in the menaced town, and the police make random raids on the underworld. Gangsters cannot pursue their 'work' quietly; so they resolve to find the murderer. Two conferences about the murders are then paralled; that of the police authorities and that of the gangsters. Here Lang uses a startingly new sound technique: the overlapping of sentences from one scene to the next. This emphasizes the parallel action while tightening and accelerating the drama. He does not neglect visual effect, but bathes the gangsters in shadows.

    In contrast to the plodding investigations of the police, the gangsters organize the network of beggars to watch for the murderer. Ironically he is detected by the blind balloon seller who recognizes the whistling. The blind man tells a story to follow the murderer, who has a little girl with him.

    The murderer buys the child some oranges and pulls out his flick-knife - but only to peel one. Alarmed, the watching boy chalks an 'M' (for murderer) on his hand, jostles the murderer and manages to mark the man's back with a sign.


    Realizing he has been spotted , the murderer panics and runs into the nearby courtyard of an office block. Two fire engines rush past ringing their bells, and by the time they have gone, the murderer has disappeared. The gangsters, alerted by the beggars, break into the building. Again, sound betrays the murderer: accidentally locked in an attic, he tries to hammer a nail into a makeshift key. The sound is heard by the hunters, who break in and seize him. Wrapped in a carpet, he is carried off for 'trial'.

    Before a jury largely made up of criminals and prostitutes, the murderer screams out his confession:

      'Who are you...all of you?...Criminals! Perhaps you're even proud of being able to break safes, to climb into buildings or cheat at cards...Things you could just as well keep your fingers off...But I...I can't help myself! I haven't any control over this evil thing that's inside me - the fire, the voices, the torment...I want to escape...but it's impossible.'

    The police, meanwhile, have been told of the gangsters' activities and break into the 'courtroom' just as the mob is howling for the murder's death. No silent film could have created the emotional climax of the murderer's confession with titles alone.


    Although Lang's use of the underworld was influenced by Berthold Brecht's famous satirical play Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), he based much of the screenplay on contemporary press reports. Lang also investigated police methods of detection and spoke to gangsters (even giving them parts in the film). He asked his set designer, Emil Hasler, for 'everyday' sketches for decor, and his cameraman, Fritz Arno Wagner, to adopt newsreel techniques when shooting.

    This well-documented approach is typical of Lang's films, but does not obscure his genuine human concern.In an interview with Gero Gandert, Lang recalled:

      'In M, I was not only interested in finding out why someone was driven to a crime as horrible as child murder, but also to discuss the pros and cons of capital punishment. But the film's message is not the conviction of the murderer but the warning to all mothers, "You should keep better watch over your children". This human message was felt particularly strongly by my wife at the time, Thea von Harbou'



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    A shadow looms over Elsie Beckmann. Her name will soon figure on the list of the murderer's victims.

    As the townsfolk panic, an innocent man is seized by the mob.

    Unaware that every beggar in the city is on the watch for him, the murderer eyes yet another victim.

    He catches sight of the tell-tale 'M' chalked on his back by a boy who suspects him and panics.

    He hides in an attic full of bric-a-brac, but is eventually caught by a vigilante force of gangsters and taken to an abandoned factory to be 'tried' by criminals.

    The gang boss confronts him with a picture of Elsie, and a blind balloon-seller also gives evidence against him.

    Finally he makes his confession.

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