During the masterful opening sequence of M (1931) we witness the abduction and murder of a young girl. It’s beautifully realised visual storytelling that concludes with the devastating image of an empty space at the dinner table as a mother calls out for her daughter. We’re left with the sight of the young girl’s balloon caught in some telephone lines, forever separated from its owner.
Fritz Lang’s first sound film, M is the godfather of what is now a cinematic staple, the serial killer movie. Its influence trickled down through every decade that followed, with high watermarks in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960), Argento’s TENEBRAE (1983), Fincher’s SE7EN (1995) & Bong Joon-Ho’s MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003). TV is also morbidly obsessed with the genre. Nordic Noirs like The Bridge, eight seasons of Dexter and the current popularity of the BBC’s The Fall all attest to this enduring influence.
But long before Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter, Hans Beckert stalked the smoky Berlin streets, whistling Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’. Played with affecting empathy by Peter Lorre, Beckert’s particular mental processes are exposed in the jaw-dropping climax of M. With this, Fritz Lang seems to have laid the groundwork for the importance of psychology as a hallmark of these kinds of movies.
In addition to the serial killer genre, M offers a dynamically realised blueprint for the police procedural. After the Sci-Fi dystopia of METROPOLIS (1927), Lang was determined to base M on meticulously researched factual data. He shadowed police officers, spent time with convicted serial killers and employed criminals as extras.
It lends the investigative journey in M an immersive sense of authenticity. A shot of a blown up thumbprint wouldn’t look out of place on CSI (CSI: Weimar Republic anyone?). The cross cutting between the police, politicians and the criminal underworld brings to mind the stark cross-section of a diseased society powerfully explored in seminal TV drama The Wire.
And then there’s the thorny issue of its weighty thematic concerns. M proposes that child killing is the worst crime imaginable. Is a serial child killer, therefore, a deranged monster? Lorre’s performance suggests not – in spite of its bug-eyed, electrifying intensity. Disturbingly enough, we are to some extent pre-disposed to feel for him. After all, as the viewer we were sole witness to the abduction and murder of a child, leaving us with a skin-crawling feeling of complicity in the act.
So did M spawn the serial killer genre, with its empathetic portrait of a child murderer? Do the investigative elements mark the foundations of the cinematic police procedural? And has its complex analysis of a society at war with itself informed some of our greatest TV dramas?
Fritz Lang’s murky 83-year-old drama thriller has a lot to answer for.
M plays across Picturehouse Cinemas as part of our weekly Vintage Sundays strand. Click here for booking information.