M, Fritz Lang's crime thriller, opens in Berlin
March 11, 1931
The dark tale of a child murderer kills in Berlin.
In Berlin, Fritz Lang opened his latest film, a psychological thriller known by the simple letter M. Lang, considered by some to be Germany’s finest director, had often focused on grand and heroic themes, be it Utopian science fiction (Metropolis), German mythology (Nibelungen) or international espionage (Spies). But with M he turned to the dark, gritty reality of modern Germany. A child murderer (Peter Lorre) sends terror through a German city, causing the police to shut down all illegal acts in their mad search to find the monster. The criminal underground takes it upon itself to find him too, realizing their own livelihoods are threatened as long as he remains free. But Lang’s (and his co-writer and wife Thea Von Harbou’s) interest was not in the chase, but in the conscience of the killer. “I have tried to approach the murderer imaginatively,” wrote Lang, “to show him as a human being possessed of some demon that has driven him beyond the ordinary borderlines of human behavior.” The film’s original title (which the Nazi party forcefully suggested Lang change) was Murderers Among Us, a sentiment that suggested how deeply human the homicidal drive is (and which the Nazis feared referenced them). While they denied the character was molded after real-life child murderer Peter Kürten, Lang and Van Harbou researched the subject extensively, spending days at the Alex (Berlin’s police headquarters), talking with psychologists, and even setting up interviews with numerous criminals. The two even traveled to Scotland Yard. The film proved a stunning success, perhaps even too much. Peter Lorre later complained of the flood of disturbing letters he received from people who identified perhaps a bit too much with his character. But the glory was short lived. The Nazis soon banned the film as decadent. And then they cut together pieces of Lorre’s performance to use in anti-Jewish propaganda.