M is a 1931 German drama-thriller directed by Fritz Lang and written by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou. It was Lang's first sound film, although he had directed over a dozen films previously, including Metropolis. Over the years the film has become a defining classic that rivals Lang's other works for the title of magnum opus. Lang himself maintained that this film was his finest work. The lead, Peter Lorre, was typecast for years after the film's release as a villain for his portrayal of a child murderer. M also pioneered the use of leitmotif to give the film score a more intense feel.
M is allegedly based on the real-life case of serial killer Peter Kürten, the "Vampire of Düsseldorf", whose crimes of the 1920s were still recent enough to resonate in the viewer's mind when the film debuted, although Lang fervently denied that he drew from this case. A police psychiatrist in the film cites serial killers Fritz Haarmann and Karl Grossmann as examples of how such criminals can conceal themselves in everyday society.
The film opens with a circle of children playing a game that involves a rhyme about a child murderer. This foreshadows the appearance of Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a serial killer who preys on children in 1930s Berlin. Initially the audience does not see his face; they merely see his shadow and shots of his body, hearing him whistle "In the Hall of the Mountain King" (German, In der Halle des Bergkönigs) from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg as he buys a balloon from a blind man and gives it to a little girl named Elsie Beckmann. In the next scene, her mother searches frantically as the audience sees the balloon flying up into the telephone lines.
As the police do their work, the criminal underworld of Berlin becomes increasingly concerned about the murder spree. Not only is it bad for business to have the police sniffing around, but it is insulting to be lumped into the same category as a child killer.
Eventually, a race develops between the police and the criminals to catch the killer, who is completely unaware of what is happening. He makes the mistake of whistling again near the same blind balloon salesman. The salesman tells one of the criminals, who tails the killer and, desperate for a way to track him, manages to mark a large letter M onto the killer's coat in chalk.
Now able to track the killer, the criminals pursue him and, after a lengthy search of an office building, finally catch him, bringing him before a kangaroo court. There, Beckert delivers an impassioned monologue, saying that he doesn't want to commit these crimes, and that he should not be punished for being insane. The monologue ends with the line (delivered by Lorre in a near scream) "Who knows what it's like to be me?"
As the criminals are on the point of killing Beckert, the police arrive, snatching him from their grip.
The final image of the film is that of five judges about to give Beckert his sentence. Before the sentence is announced, the shot cuts to three of the victim's mothers crying, with Elsie's mother delivering the moral of the film: that killing the murderer will do no good, and that parents must watch their children more closely.
- Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert. M was Lorre's first major starring role, and it boosted his career, even though he was typecast as a villain for years after in films such as Mad Love and the film adaptation of Crime and Punishment. Before M, Lorre was mostly a comedic actor. After his performance he landed an important role in Alfred Hitchcock's original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, picking up English along the way.
- Otto Wernicke as Inspector Karl Lohmann. Wernicke's great breakthrough came with M after playing many small roles in silent films for over a decade. After his part in M, he was in great demand due to the success of the film and he played interesting supporting roles for the rest of his career.
- Gustaf Gründgens as Der Schränker. Gründgens received acclaim for his role in the film and established a successful career for himself under Nazi rule, ultimately becoming director of the "Staatliches Schauspielhaus".
- Ellen Widmann as Frau Beckmann
- Inge Landgut as Elsie Beckmann
- Theodor Loos as Inspector Groeber
- Friedrich Gnass as Franz, the burglar
- Fritz Odemar as Cheater
- Paul Kemp as Pickpocket with six watches
- Theo Lingen as Bauernfänger
- Rudolf Blümner as Beckert's defender
- Georg John as Blind panhandler
- Franz Stein as Minister
- Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur as Police chief
- Gerhard Bienert as Criminal secretary
- Karl Platen as Damowitz, a night-watchman
- Rosa Valetti as Elisabeth Winkler, Beckert's landlady
- Hertha von Walther as Prostitute
- Hanna Meron as Girl in circle at the beginning (uncredited)
- Klaus Pohl as Witness / one-eyed man (uncredited)
Links with other worksEdit
Lorre's character whistles the tune "In the Hall of the Mountain King" (ger. In der Halle des Bergkönigs) from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. However, Peter Lorre himself could not whistle – it is actually Director Fritz Lang who is heard. 
Police inspector Karl Lohmann proved so popular with audiences that he was brought back for Lang's next film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
Lorre's climactic speech was appropriated by Joseph Goebbels for the Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew, a Holocaust apologist film that blames Jews for devaluing German culture with "degenerate" art. Because Lorre was Jewish, the film uses his final speech as "proof" that Jews exemplify innate criminality, and refuse to take responsibility for their wrongdoings.
Although sound had been used in films for several years before M, the film was one of the first to use a leitmotif, associating "In the Hall of the Mountain King" (ger. In der Halle des Bergkönigs) with the Lorre character. Late in the film, the mere sound of the song lets the audience know that he must be nearby, off-screen. This association of a musical theme with a particular character or situation, a technique borrowed from opera, is now a film staple.  Although The Maltese Falcon is traditionally credited as the first film noir, the American genre was inspired by earlier European films with dark, stylish cinematography. In that respect, M anticipated many essential features of the genre.
Today, M consistently ranks among the Internet Movie Database's top 250 films, currently at #45.
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- M at the Internet Archive
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- Criterion Collection essay by Stanley Kauffmann
- M Photographs and literature
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