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Just you wait, it won't be long.
The man in black will soon be here.
With his cleaver's blade so true.
He'll make mincemeat out of you!
Fritz Lang's 1931 masterpiece about a serial child killer and the people who try to find him: the police, the criminal underworld, and the city's beggars. One of the first examples of Film Noir, M provides not only stark black and white images, but also a haunting Leitmotif throughout the film.
Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) whistles "In the Hall of the Mountain King", as he buys a balloon from a blind balloon seller for a little girl named Elsie Beckmann. A scene later, Elsie's mother looks for her and can't find her, shouting her name as the camera shows the balloon drifting in the sky.
Police inspector Karl Lohmann, meanwhile, is investigating the serial killings with modern policework, such as fingerprinting and handwriting analysis. The criminal underworld, too, is searching for the killer, since more police on the street is bad business for them and they, too, are disgusted by the killer targeting children.
When Hans whistles "In the Hall of the Mountain King" again in front of the blind balloon seller, the seller tells one of the criminals, who marks Hans with a chalk M on his jacket, so they can follow him. The criminal fraternity goes to more ruthless lengths than the police to catch the killer, and cause a great deal of collateral damage to people and private property, before finally closing in on him. The criminals kidnap Beckert and bring him to a Kangaroo Court, where Hans makes an impassioned speech about how he should not be blamed for the murders since he can't help himself, he can't help that he's insane. Despite the nature of the court, the criminal appointed as Beckert's legal representative tries hard to defend him fairly. The 'prosecutor' takes the stance that either for his crimes (if he is not insane) or for his insanity, Beckert has forfeited his right to live and must be exterminated. Beckert desparately tries to he explain that he can't help being this way. The criminals are about to kill Hans when the police bust in and arrest both him and his captors.
As Hans is about to be sentenced by five judges, the mothers outside the courtroom say it won't bring back their children. Elsie's mother says they should have kept better watch. "We have to keep closer watch over the children. All of us."
The film contains examples of:
- Adult Fear: Don't leave your kids alone even for a second.
- Anti-Villain: Hans.
- Arc Words: "Who is the murderer?"
- Badass Longcoat: Der Schränker's leather overcoat.
- Dream Melody: "In the Hall of the Mountain King"
- Drop What You Are Doing: When Franz tells Inspector Lohmann that they broke into the office building to catch the child murderer, the cigar he was smoking falls out of his mouth.
- Downer Ending: Beckert is brought to trial, but the climax establishes that neither execution nor medical treatment seems to be totally fitting sentence, and it won't bring back the kids anyway.
- Empathy Doll Shot: One of the oldest examples: Elsie's ball and balloon in the opening scene.
- Establishing Character Moment
- Even Evil Has Standards: A complicated example. Hans disgusts all the criminal bigwigs because he kills children, but they're only after him because he interferes with their crimes. The "defense attorney" notes the hypocrisy of wanted murderers standing in judgment of another murderer. Hans' final speech also calls them out on their hypocritical 'standards', pointing out that he does what he does because he is insane and cannot help himself, whereas for their talk of standards they do what they do because they can't be bothered learning an honest, legal trade.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Der Schränker ("The Safecracker")
- Foreign Remake: Joseph Losey's 1951 version transposes the story to post-WWII Los Angeles.
- Fridge Horror: Considering what mental hospitals were like in the 1930s, the death penalty might be kinder for poor Hans. He's pretty screwed either way.
- German Expressionism: a late example
- Gory Discretion Shot:
- Interesting version; In one scene, the Thieves are torturing a watchman for information in a glass-windowed room, with a crowd of beggars watching from outside. When the leader signals for the torture to start, the beggars move up against the windows so nothing can be seen.
- Also, Elsie's death at the beginning.
- Grey and Gray Morality: Even the child-murderer is not without his sympathetic side.
- Holding the Floor
- Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: Hans again. In fact, Peter Lorre was typecasted as this role for years afterward.
- Insanity Defense: The climax features an analysis of whether it's fair to punish a man for crimes he was compelled by insanity to do.
- Ironic Nursery Rhyme: The children's singing in the beginning and "In the Hall of the Mountain King" to an extent.
- Joker Jury: The criminals' court at the end (although Hans is far from a hero).
- Leitmotif: "In the Hall of the Mountain King" used for creepy effect. In fact, M practically created the cinematic leitmotif.
- Kangaroo Court: The criminal underworld sets up a court to try Beckert, but it's clear from the beginning that they have no intention to do anything but kill him.
- Neighborhood Friendly Gangsters
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Lohmann in his bodily build, mannerisms and modus operandi is very closely modeled on Ernst Gennat (1880-1939), the head of Berlin's Mordinspektion (set up in 1926, the world's first murder squad, i. e. police section specializing in the investigation of murders), who introduced many innovations to investigation procedures and who among other things headed the investigation of the Großman and Kürten murders and who may have coined the term "serial killer" with reference to the latter. In his day Gennat was internationally famous and known to Berliners by affectionate nicknames like "the Buddha of the Alex" (i. e. the police headquarters on Alexanderplatz).
- No Ending: Not only does the movie come to a close right before Hans is given a verdict because of the era it was created in there weren't any damn credits.
- In this case, it seems to be entirely intentional, as whatever the official courts have to say about Hans is irrelevant story-wise when compared to the speeches Hans and his lawyer gave in the Kangaroo Court.
- Not-So-Innocent Whistle
- Oh Crap:
- The climactic moment when the Mob are just about to tear Beckert to shreds, but all of them come to a dead stop and slowly raise their hands in surrender when they realize who's standing on the stairs.
- Before that, the very slow pan around the room after Hans is shoved down the stairs, showing the Joker Jury staring at him in unmoving complete silence.
- One-Letter Title
- Police Procedural: The police part of the movie is possibly the ur-example of this trope.
- Putting on the Reich: Although the movie was made before the Nazis rose to power, Der Schränker's long leather coat, leather gloves and bowler hat will probably call to mind the stereotypical image of the Gestapo in some modern viewers. Somewhat fittingly, the actor was very popular with the Nazis, though he himself was probably not one.
- Actually, der Schränker dressed like the NSDAP's propaganda chief Josef Goebbels dressed at that time; and that guy was the Ur Example of the leather-coated Nazi.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: In his impassioned defence, Hans is quick to note the essential hypocrisy of the court of criminals trying him; he is evil, but he commits abhorrent acts because he is insane and cannot make himself stop, but they choose to be criminals when they could instead earn an honest trade.
- Silence Is Golden: Because a silent film was expected to have accompaniment throughout this film is actually quieter than most silent films. The silence of shots like the slow reveal of the mob backed court, and, later, the police coming to stop the mobsters from killing the serial killer makes them so much tenser.
- Serial Killer
- Shaming the Mob: This is what Hans tries to do. It doesn't work. Except on the audience.
- Stab the Salad: After luring in his next victim, Hans pulls out a switchblade which he uses to cut an orange.
- Sympathetic Murderer: Hans, even though he kills children.
- Talent Double: Peter Lorre couldn't actually whistle, so Lang provided it in a hidden Creator Cameo.
- Thieves' Guild: Several of them, it seems, one for each major division of the trade.
- Tragic Villain: Hans can't help the fact that he's a child murderer.
- Trope Maker
- The Un-Reveal: Beckert's sentence. The judges are just about to announce it when the film cuts to a mourning mother, who says it doesn't matter, because it won't bring back her child.
- Vehicle Vanish: One of the first examples?
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Fritz Lang based the story on several serial killers who had plagued Germany in recent years, including Fritz Haarmann, Karl Großmann, and Peter Kürten, the "Vampire of Düsseldorf." Haarman and Großmann are mentioned by name, and Haarmann is the real subject of the children's rhyhme at the beginning.
- It should be noted that Fritz denied it because it was seen as being tastelessly (for presenting him as sympathetic) Ripped from the Headlines.
- Villain Protagonist
- Weird Trade Union: The Beggars' League (taken from Brecht's The Threepenny Opera).
- What Is Evil?: Beckert is pursued by the city's criminal underworld, because the intensive police manhunt is interfering with their business and because they resent police inquiries that imply that they might be associated with a child murderer. When they conduct a mock trial of Beckert, he attacks their sense of moral superiority, declaring that he does what he does because he's haunted by unwanted compulsions he can't resist, while they do what they do because they freely chose crime instead of honest work.
- Would Hurt a Child: Ugh.