Jaime on Criterion: M Review - NP Approved

By Jaime Burchardt


M (1931)

Director: Fritz Lang
Country: Germany
Genre: Crime | Drama | Thriller
Official Site: Here

Editor’s Notes: The following review marks the start of Jaime’s bi-weekly Criterion review series where he will explore the depths of the Criterion Collection.

It must have been the cheers that come with a big city. Usually the sounds of joy attract me. But since I was walking the path that’s been laid out by the Criterion catalog, I figured it could be anything that brought me to Germany. The mysterious fog had lifted, long enough for me to see…nothing.

It was like a ghost town. Streets, shops and playgrounds that would have housed happy people and their children now brought to an eerie vibe of nothingness. It was the aftermath of a horrific event. This German town had just seen hell. The evidence was posted up on a street pole.

M is powerhouse of dramatic pride that’s also strategically detailed, and that in itself is a bit of an understatement. 

M is brought to you by Fritz Lang, the celebrated Austrian filmmaker behind Metropolis and Ministry of Fear. Once rumored to be titled “The Murders Are Among Us”, this is the story of a German town living in fear of a man who lures children away to the darkness, and does unspeakable things to them before taking their lives. This man is Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), and after feeding into his insatiable acts for eight months without getting caught, he feels pretty damn near invincible. He writes to the press, vowing that he is nowhere near finished. The latest victim, a sweet little girl, sents the police and powers-to-be in a frenzy. The presence of policemen nearly triple in size, and they’re starting to crack down everywhere, including all the places where small-time crooks and con artists make their living. There are a lot of them, especially five in particular who sort of have their own group. One night, after avoiding another police raid, they come up with an idea: after realizing this madman is bad for their business, and using their skills & their allegiances with the local beggars & other criminals, they decide to catch the murderer themselves. Through an intricate plan, they map out their attack and decide that once they find out who he is, they’re going to label him, with a big, white M.


Fritz Lang was already a household name among the film circuits by the time the 1930’s started, but that was about it. His previous films, including Metropolis, weren’t financial hits, and the story is that he was just take a break from the filmmaking game, probably for good. Apparently it was the last lines from the original script by his long-time collaborator Thea von Harbou that changed his mind, and for a good reason. The whole ride that M puts you through will test you like few films have or will be able to do. But the very last moment, the very last shot, those last three lines…they weighed more any dramatic moment I’ve seen in a long time. It came crashing down on me. But I’m getting a bit excited, let me recall the journey before I finish any talk of the destination.

Made right before Germany got a horrible dose of Nazi force, Lang wanted to make something with power, and he wasn’t about to sugar coat any of the steps towards that goal. M is powerhouse of dramatic pride that’s also strategically detailed, and that in itself is a bit of an understatement. The first few minutes showcase what seems to be the daily routine of a mother just living life, washing a huge pile of clothes while cooking dinner for her daughter. The mother’s not old, but you can tell that she’s weary; perhaps tired from everything that life’s thrown at her. The only joys she has left on this planet are the occasional bit of reading she purchases for a few cents, and her daughter. She’s preparing the dishes for supper. As she cleans the bowls and sets up the table, she keeps looking up at the clock. Her daughter is late. Her tired movements are getting heavier with each passing minute. Fear takes over, and then she starts to call out to her. “Elsie…Elsie.” Each call becomes more and more blood-curdling. Then the scene jumps out to the an empty field. And a ball. And I find myself feeling absolutely disgusted.

I swear to you, M is the film to watch if you ever want to see a filmmaker(s) play some kind of crazy game of chess against themselves, or a clone or an alter ego that was hellbent on draining them. 

This is 1931, people. The factors of time bring along different views, especially when you try to remember what was and what was not allowed to be shown, even in different countries. Then you also factor in the technical aspects. Lang didn’t have a huge budget for M, which included sound. As a result, he decided to not have a score accompany this, and only two-thirds of the film had sound. You and I know the old cinematic philosophy: sometimes, restrictions can bring out extreme levels of creativity. I believe Lang used this as a stamp, but also not as an excuse to create unnecessary bravado.

I swear to you, M is the film to watch if you ever want to see a filmmaker(s) play some kind of crazy game of chess against themselves, or a clone or an alter ego that was hellbent on draining them. He chose his usage of sound carefully. The moments to speed up the film, or to slow them down just a bit to capture ever-growing madness. Madness that was contained. The sequences that involved people allowing their lives to be fully engulfed in fear to the point of absolute anarchy are breathtaking to behold. I found myself rewinding it twice to let it impact me more. The moves Lang creates for this is the stuff that legends are made of, and as mentioned before, they’re moves of great capacity.

Now here’s something I didn’t know about Lang: he was actually really famous for making the lives of his cast a living hell. With Lorre, it was taken to great lengths. At Lang’s request, during one particular scene, Lorre was thrown down a flight of stairs over a dozen times for over a dozen takes. That’s not necessary to bring out the best especially from an excellent actor, but I wonder if it helped Lorre put him on the edge just a little bit more. To be on the edge is to be put on the edge, perhaps. There are mannerisms that Lorre demonstrated while playing a real-life monster. A particular scene that grabbed me (and that was also worth a few rewinds) was one that showed Lorre doing some window shopping. And in the reflection, he sees a little girl. She’s not doing anything special; she’s just standing there, looking at the street. But to the monster, that’s just enough to wind him up. And then Lorre displayed the hunger take over him, and he started twitching his ear. That prompted the rewind for me. I’ve seen eye twitches and finger movements and lip biting and such before. But the ability to twitch the ear? LIke a wolf that just heard the footsteps of his prey walk by? Incredible. I was floored. Needless to say, the rest of the performance Lorre gives is master status, especially his big moment towards the end.

I remember hearing years ago that M is a one-of-a-kind look at one of the birthing moments of true horrific monsters taking shape on the silver screen. Fritz Lang captured a monster-esque quality, but the approach and attempts he had his characters and story take to bring down this monster is truly unique. M is meticulous without being pretentious, and in a sense, this is Lang’s version of a horror film. It thrilled me while challenging my feelings, all while bringing about an appreciation to how films were made with the blunt force of impact. There’s nothing to be had here with M besides the acts and their dire consequences. What you feel along the way may vary.  Honestly.

As I composed myself and left Germany, I started to think to myself, “I really need to make sure my next Criterion stop is a pleasant one. Maybe one that’ll make me chuckle.” I kept thinking that after my feet went back through the mysterious road. Then the road disappeared underneath my feet, and the next thing I knew it, I fell right into the ocean…

94/100 ~ AMAZING. M is a true masterpiece of power, and if you’re a fan of Fritz Lang, you can expect nothing short of brilliance.

My head's been consumed the art of movies & its creation ever since I was old enough to know what the word 'consumed' meant. The only way to reduce the pressure buildup is to write, edit, and direct. Chocolate milk also helps.
  • Doug Heller

    Another fantastic entry, Jamie. M is my favorite film not in the English language, so I was really happy to read such a wonderful piece on it. Also, did you know that Thea von Harbou was not only Lang’s frequent screenwriter but also his wife?