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Film Review: M

Updated on April 11, 2015
Peter Lorre In M
Peter Lorre In M

M (Lang, 1931)

As Fritz Lang’s first sound film, it is not only his best; it is one of the greatest films of all time. It marks a point cinematic beauty, combining German Expressionism, realism and the creative use of sound in dynamic ways. This film would be one of Lang’s last in Germany before he fled to the US after the Nazis gained control of Germany. It is a subtle statement of that era and marks a moment when sound became something more than a spectacle whose only use was to feature song and dance numbers.

M is one of the inspirations for film noir (popular in the 1940s), because of its dark theme and look. It is about a serial killer who attacks children and terrifies the city’s citizens so much both cop and crook search for him.

Lang creates an ambiance so thrilling it puts you at the edge of your seat for most of the movie. The film features a constant juxtaposition: from cop to crook, from good to bad, from light to dark. Not only does that keep the pace going, it creates moments of humor in a film that is for the most part intense and dark. Lang also uses the mise-en-scene to structure a scene within a scene creating a ‘trapped in’ feeling while also using shots of open cityscapes to show the vast space the town encompasses. The skill Lang uses will amaze you.

Though this is an ensemble piece, the clear break out star is undeniably Peter Lorre, who plays Hans Beckert. He finds a way to be both scary and sympathetic without losing any realism. He is brilliant and so is this film. If you haven’t watched M, do so as soon as possible. You won’t be let down!

The Trailer below is in German, but no translation is needed. You'll also get a taste for how sound is used during the film. Brilliant indeed.

The M Trailer

Animated in Bugs Bunny cartoons
Animated in Bugs Bunny cartoons

Fun Facts

  • Lang is the first to feature sound bridges, or using sound in one scene then carrying it over to the next. This technique would not become commonplace until modern Hollywood.
  • Lang is one of the first to use voiceover narration.
  • Lang uses sound as hints throughout the film.
  • The tune whistled is "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from the "Peer Gynt" suite by Edvard Grieg.
  • Lorre couldn't whisle, so the person you hear is Lang.
  • Lang doesn’t use any nondiegetic music, only dialogue and sound effects.
  • Lang insisted on using real criminals and most were arrested at least once during filming.
  • I’ll always remember Peter Lorre from Bugs Bunny cartoons.

  • Lorre, who was Jewish, fled Germany right after the movie’s released. Lang, who was half Jewish, fled two years later.
  • The Nazi’s banned the film in 1934.
  • Thea von Harbou, Lang’s wife, wrote the script. She was a Nazi sympathizer who stayed in Germany after Lang fled.
  • Lorre had a successful career in Hollywood after leaving Germany. He had parts in The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941), Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942) and Arsenic and Old Lace (Capra, 1944) just to name a few.

Have you seen M?

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    • LCDWriter profile image

      L C David 4 years ago from Florida

      One or my favorite Peter L movies of all time. I'm sucked in whenever I start watching it. Another interesting fact is that the scene with Lorre explaining to the kangaroo court how he "can't help himself" when he kills children was taken out of context and used in Nazi propaganda films to continue to build the case of Jewish people being inferior. Lang and Lorre were both so talented.

    • vmartinezwilson profile image

      Vanessa Martinez Wilson 6 years ago from Vancouver, WA

      Thank you so much Ivona. I agree, the movie is as relevant as ever and Lorre is such a superb actor. When I first watched the movie, I found it difficult not to see the cartoon version of him, but was beyond that by the end.

      The children's scene in the beginning is so haunting and if you think about it, brilliant in its use of sound. No one had really approached using sound like that before. Land truly was brilliant.

      Thanks again!

    • Ivona Poyntz profile image

      Ivona Poyntz 6 years ago from UK

      Great review. Lorre of course is a terrific character actor and the film doesn't appear dated, even 80+ years on. I watched the trailer above, and although it had no subtitles, I remember the children in a 'ring a ring a rosies' circle very well: given that the person who is 'out' is actually meant to be killed: a very stark and unexpected game for children to be playing, but as this was one of the openiing scenes of the film, it sets the tone perfectly. Also thanks for the 'fun facts': didn't know both director and lead actor had emigrated, although not surprised: the Nazis were dictatorial dictators, and German art and cinema suffered during this period (not to mention the war, of course).