The film with the shortest title in movie history is also among the most powerful ever seen: Fritz Lang’s devastating 1931 German-made thriller about a psychopathic child-murderer played with extraordinarily feverish intensity by Peter Lorre: M (available on DVD), the single letter standing for “murderer.” Released during only the third year of full sound, the picture has in common with certain others of this early talking period (1929-1933) a profoundly exciting use of silent-picture technique at its best combined with innovative and remarkably imaginative use of sound. Such masters of visual story-telling as Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, Rene Clair and Howard Hawks, made the transition with a flair and abandon not really to be seen quite so vividly again. In very different ways, pictures like Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant, Clair’s A Nous La Liberté, Hawks’ original Scarface, and M share an unconventional spirit of daring experimentation.
Based on the real case of a serial child-killer in Dusseldorf, and written by Lang with his wife of the time, Thea von Harbou, M works brilliantly on a number of levels at once: as a kind of documentary, as a crime melodrama, and as a somewhat stylized investigation of urban terror and violence. On the highest plane, Lang intended the film as a plea against capital punishment. There is a distinctly mordant wit behind it all, too, in the way the killer’s terrible deeds plague the underworld and their many nefarious activities; the increased vigilance of the city’s authorities make life so difficult for the professional criminals that they finally band together to catch the murderer themselves so that crime can flourish again.
Although M is memorably horrifying, there is almost no violence shown at all; everything that’s most frightening is done through Lang’s superb use of suggestion. The murderer whistles a theme from Greig, buys his little-girl victim a helium balloon, though she already is playing with a rubber ball. Eventually, he takes her behind some bushes. Silence. After a few moments, the ball rolls out from the bushes, comes to rest at the curb. Then the balloon rises toward the sky, catches briefly against some high electrical wires before continuing off toward the clouds.
I once asked Lang why he had chosen to represent the killing of the child in this way; in our age of constant graphic movie and TV violence, his answer is all the more instructive: “Suppose…that I could show this horrible sexual crime,” he told me. “First of all, it’s a question of taste—-and tact…If I could show what is most horrible for me, it may not be horrible for somebody else. Everybody in the audience—-even the one who doesn’t dare allow himself to understand what really happened to that poor child—-has a horrible feeling that runs cold over his back. But everybody has a different feeling, because everybody imagines the most horrible thing that could happen to her. And that is something I could not have achieved by showing only one possibility—-say, that he tears open the child, cuts her open. Now, in this way, I force the audience to become a collaborator of mine—-by suggesting something I achieve a greater impression, a greater involvement than by showing it.” (Certainly this concept well served The Blair Witch Project, though that film had other problems.)
Equally responsible for the enduringly modern effectiveness of M is the amazing suspension of disbelief achieved by Peter Lorre’s astonishing performance—-his first large role in films. Both hypnotic and repulsive, he reaches tragic heights in his final scene, spewing forth about the compulsive, inexorable demons that drive him: “I must! I must!” he cries in one of the screen’s most unforgettably naked moments. It is certainly Lorre’s greatest performance (and he was a hell of a good actor), in the film that Lang himself, to the end of his life, considered his own best work. He was right.