IN a poll of German film critics, Fritz Lang's M was voted the best German film of all time.
I prefer Lang's messier but more delightful sci-fi epic Metropolis, but I wouldn't argue. M, Lang's first sound film, is a masterpiece.
Seen today, the 1931 feature impresses as a prototype, the grandaddy of both the police procedural and the serial-killer thriller. Even so, it is a movie with subject matter that would have scared Hollywood studios of the era.
The film begins with a mother preparing lunch for her daughter Elsie. But Elsie never shows. The little schoolgirl has met a seemingly charming man who treats her with candy and a balloon toy, purchased from a blind street vendor. The stranger is Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a psychotic given to whistling Grieg's theme In the Hall of the Mountain King.
The police respond with a crackdown on the criminal underworld of the unnamed German city where the murders have occurred. (It has been said the film was inspired by the case of serial killer Peter Kºrten, the so-called "Vampire of Dºsseldorf.")
All that police pressure puts a crimp in underworld business, to the extent a kingpin known as "The Safecracker" (Gustaf Grºndgens), suggests that this community of beggars, prostitutes and thieves might have better luck tracking down the elusive killer.
At the same time, the case's chief investigator, Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), gets the idea of questioning former mental patients and looking for links between the suspects and the killer.
The race is on between cops and robbers to find the murderer. (The "M" stands for "Mrder" or "murderer.")
Some of the film's images -- all restored in a new digital restoration -- remain powerfully haunting: an abandoned balloon toy caught in power lines, buffeted by the wind, a silent cue to Elsie's demise. There is Lorre, spying a little girl through a shop window, overcome with his private sick desire. And again, there is Lorre shockingly confronted in an abandoned building by an assembly of hundreds of crooks -- viewed in a slow stately pan -- who will constitute a jury of his peers.
The contemporary serial-killer movie tends to augment the drama with copious gore and graphic violence. Lang achieves far greater impact without the audience seeing a single corpse... or a single drop of blood, for that matter.
And yet, M remains one of the most disturbing films ever made.