Four years after Metropolis, Austrian-born Fritz Lang directed his expressionistic suspense film “M.”
Now considered among the best films ever made, M had massive influence on modern cinema, including our favourite genre, Film Noir.
One could even argue that M laid the groundwork for genres like the police procedural, the psychological thriller and the contemporary murder mystery.
With sound tracks being a recent invention, M was Lang’s first “talkie.” Produced by Nero Films A.G and shot just outside Berlin, Lang co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Thea Von Horbou.
In the early stages of production, M was briefly put on hold due to Nazi party interference. Although they eventually relented, party officials originally suspected the film was really meant as a veiled criticism of Nazi policies.
The film lives on today as both a masterpiece of modern cinema and a testament to the stupidity of fascists: M was absolutely about them.
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Fritz Lang’s M: Spoiler-Free Synopsis
In Weimar Germany, a community is shaken by the shocking murders of several school-age children. These disappearances eventually become so common, kids chant nonsense songs about “the murderer” as they play outside.
When yet another little girl goes missing, the public is overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness and panic. Simultaneously, three powerful forces sweep into action: Police, Politicians and the German Mafia.
The police begin a general crackdown on any gathering place or bawdy house where disorder might be present. Civil rights are swept away as they increase patrols and tighten up enforcement measures.
Politicians impose a form of martial law. They allow the round-up of ex-convicts, police informants, even the mentally-ill. Anyone who possesses even the slightest degree of criminality is held in custody without probable cause or due process.
The mafia group that controls the criminal underworld, known in Germany as the Ringvereine, become financial victims of this widespread panic.
Without customers to fill their bars and brothels, or low-rent crooks to run their scams, the mob is bleeding money. Every day the crisis lasts is another blow to their illicit profits. Like the police and the politicians, the mob embarks on capturing the murderer—one way or another.
As the plot of M unfolds, the audience is left with two important clues.
The murderer wears a fedora.
The murderer whistles a specific tune.
Fritz Lang’s M: Full Plot Summary
The film opens with a group of children playing a game in the courtyard of an apartment block. One of the children repeats a schoolyard rhyme about a murderer.
A housewife (Ellen Widmann) shouts down from her balcony, asking them to stop singing such a morbid song.
A little girl wearing a backpack and a uniform plays with a ball as she ambles home from school. She stop and throws her ball against a wooden sign mounted to a lamppost. The camera zooms in, a close-up shot that indicates the point of view belongs to someone tall enough to read the sign at eye-level.
The signage states that a reward is being offered for the capture of a child murderer. Just as we finish reading the text, we see the shadow of a man’s head, adorned with a large fedora-style hat, leaning down toward the girl.
The housewife, Mrs. Beckman, continues her domestic duties. A short time later, she hears footsteps on the stairs: two children arriving home from school instead of three. She asks about her daughter and they tell her Elsie stayed behind at school.
In another street scene, the man in the fedora (Peter Lorre) has his back turned to the camera. He purchases balloons from a blind street vendor (Georg John) and hands them to the little girl.
The man begins to whistle Evard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, a leitmotif style melody that becomes a pneumatic device associated with the fedora wearing man.
Back at her apartment building, Mrs. Beckman calls out the window for Elsie (Inge Landgut). A series of expressionistic scenes, soundtracked by Beckman’s calls, indicate that Elsie will not be coming home for supper. Elsie has become the latest victim of the child murderer.
In a montage of street scenes, people clamor for a chance to buy the morning paper. We cut to a man sitting behind a desk. His back is turned to the camera. He’s whistling the tune from earlier. His handwritten letter confirms our suspicion: he is the murderer, and he is not yet finished killing.
A series of scenes illustrate the degree of paranoia taking root in the community. Workers, politicians, journalists, no one is immune.
Even the police detective, Inspector Groeber (Theodor Loos), begins straying from procedure, “Any man in the street might be the guilty one.”
Mirroring the previous montage, a criminal called “Der Schranker” or The Safecracker (portrayed by Gustaf Grundgens) hosts a meeting between local mobsters, in which they discuss their declining revenue streams.
Known as the Ringvereine, the German mafia controls gambling houses, brothels, taverns, robberies, racketeering and extortion. These enterprises require both customers and loose enforcement to be successful.
Unless the “outsider” is apprehended, tighter rules and lower traffic threatens the livelihoods of all involved. The mobsters resolve to catch the murderer themselves.
In yet another episode of mirroring, a group of bureaucrats and politicians have a meeting to discuss the crisis. Not unlike the gangsters, their disdain for the average person is obvious. They decide to enact a form of martial law, ignoring the rights of the citizens.
What follows is a three pronged assault on civil liberties:
- The Police deploy undercover agents, disguised as vagrants and invalids, surveilling innocent people, detaining those deemed suspicious without evidence or probable cause.
- The Mafia begins its own surveillance scheme, watching schools and other places where children congregate.
- The State also intervenes, rounding up convicts, the mentally ill and police informants, holding them indefinitely, pressuring them to name names.
Sometime later, perhaps the next day, Inspector Groeber sits behind his desk, pouring over different files. One file is a list of possible suspects, derived from a master list of convicts and criminals who may or may not pose a threat.
Around the same time, the man in the fedora leaves his apartment. On the street, the man moves along the storefronts, pretending that he’s window shopping. In reality, he’s using the reflective surface of the glass to scout the streets for victims.
Back in Groeber’s office, the Inspector consults yet another file. This one provides a list of potential clues to look for when performing door-to-door searches. One of these items is a desktop with a rough wood surface.
Using a mirror in a storefront furniture display, the fedora man spots a young girl standing alone. He makes a series of grotesque faces and begins whistling the ominous tune.
Inspector Groeber knocks on an apartment door. We recognize it as the fedora man’s apartment. Groeber asks the landlady for the whereabouts of Mr. Hans Beckert. Finally—we know the killer’s name.
The landlady says that Beckert has gone out, but Groeber is welcome to wait in the study.
Back on the street, Groeber begins to stalk the girl. Inside the apartment, Beckert begins his search. These alternating scenes culminate with two results:
- Beckert is thwarted when the girl’s mother appears and escorts her home. We then see him retreat to a street-side cafe, where he orders a brandy and appears to be tortured by a spasm of intrusive thoughts and urges.
- Groeber reports back to his superiors after completing his search of the apartment. Though inconclusive, some clues point to Beckert.
After finishing his brandy, Beckert approaches another young girl and manages to make her acquaintance. As the pair navigate the sidewalk, the blind balloon seller from the film’s opening scenes recognizes Beckert’s whistling from the day that Elise Beckman disappeared.
The balloon seller quickly tells his friend, who follows Beckert to a shop.
Beckert emerges from the store, still with the girl. The man hides in the alleyway and draws the letter “M” on his hand with a thick piece of chalk.
As he passes Beckert, he purposely bumps into him, marking the back of his coat with a white letter “M” (for murderer).
After thorough reasoning and yet another search of his apartment, Groeber and Chief Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) deduce that Hans Beckert is indeed the murderer.
But just as they are planning his arrest, the man who marked Beckert’s coat makes a phone call to The Safecracker and tells him Beckert’s whereabouts. And thus The Safecracker begins making plans of his own.
Beckert and the girl walk together for a few more blocks. They stop outside a toy shop window. The girl notices a mark on Beckert’s coat.
He checks his reflection in the window and see the “M” on his back, then whirls around and spots the men that have been watching him.
In a panic, Beckert leaves the girl and flees.
On the Safecracker’s orders, groups of low-end crooks chase Beckert through the city, while back at Beckert’s flat, the police are waiting with the lights turned out. Despite the black and white format, we know that night has fallen.
The crooks chase Beckert to an office building with a bank branch on the bottom floor. Beckert darts inside and hides just before the watchmen shut the heavy iron gates.
One of the henchman calls The Safecracker and reports Beckert’s new location and predicament. The mobsters wait until 11pm, then break into the building to hunt him down.
After violent altercations with the guards, the gang eventually finds Beckert hiding in a storage room. As they drag him away, one of the injured guards manages to send a distress call to police.
The cops arrive just as the criminals escape, but one of them is accidentally left behind.
Franz (Friedrich Gnass) is a burglar known to the police. They question him repeatedly, implying he’s a murder suspect.
Under heavy duress, Franz finally cracks. He admits the robbery was an operation to find and kidnap Beckert. He gives directions to a show trial being held at an abandoned distillery on the edge of town.
A large crowd assembles inside the distillery, along with a pulpit, a raised platform, and several tables. Beckert is shoved on stage as the crowd looks on in ominous silence.
Acting as both judge and prosecution, The Safecracker shouts accusation at Beckert until he breaks down and tearfully admits his crimes. But this confession is not without reproach for his accusers.
Beckert asks, What gives a group of criminals the right to condemn him?
To this, The Safecracker basically replies, Who better to judge a criminal like YOU, than a group of criminals like US?
Beckert’s appointed “lawyer” demands a real trial in a real courtroom. He states that Beckert suffers from a compulsion, that he can’t help his own behaviour, that he’s not criminally responsible.
Hearing this, the crowd can only jeer. They burst into grotesque laughter, as if the concept of a real trial is patently ridiculous.
As the bloodthirsty crowd rushes toward Beckman, a loud whistle interrupts the frenzy. The police have arrived. Beckman will be granted a fair trial.
The film concludes with a tearful Mrs. Beckman, dressed in mourning clothes. Elsie’s mother gets the final word:
“No sentence will bring the dead children back. One has to keep closer watch over the children. All of you.”
Analysis: My Review of Fritz Lang’s M
Most people associate Nazism with World War Two. But it’s important to remember that the Nazis were a democratically elected political party.
A conglomerate of pre-existing entities, the Nazi party formed in 1919. They became a legally sanctioned opposition party in 1925, with elected members taking seats in German parliament by 1930.
Given its country of origin and the year of its release, the film most certainly forewarns the pernicious nature of extremism and the growing Nazi threat.
As M approaches its 100th birthday, it resonates with eery similarity to our current historical moment.
Governments around the world have used the social unrest sparked by the pandemic as a pretext to limit the rights of everyday people, all while extremist groups attempt to sabotage the democratic order. Their excuse: the defence of “freedom” against imagined foes, pitting their nation’s “real citizens” against perceived “outsiders.”
M has left us with a lesson it seems we need to learn again.
In the name of civil protection, be it national security or the safety of children, property or infrastructure—human rights are never fully safe from right wing populist actors.
“Any man in the street might be the guilty one.”
Facing potential Nazi censorship, M is a brave and clever rebuke of fascist ideology. Although it presents as a murder/suspense film, there is no doubt M’s true function is allegorical.
In the world of the film, only a vile criminal “outsider” can create consensus amongst disparate groups that normally contend for power.
Each group takes the law into its own hands.
Each group seeks permission to do so from a naive and fearful community.
The murderer becomes a scapegoat, an excuse to strip away the basic rights of citizens.
Under this pretext, the actions of those in power become a nightmare. In aggregate, the restrictions they impose are far more damaging to society than the threat of an occasional murder.
In the context of the film, the public must then ask itself: When the murderer is apprehended, will our rights be restored?
But the film demands a question from the audience as well,asking us what is truly most important: The rights of the many, or the safety of the few?
In her 1968 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that fascism is, “the temporary alliance between the elite and the mob.”
In M, Fritz Lang illustrates this fusion with subtle expertise.
The murderer, referred to as “the outsider”, is equally reviled by every subset of the population. But those in power seek to apprehend the suspect for very different reasons. The police are most concerned with reputation, the politicians with retaining votes. The mafia is appalled by falling profits. Only working-class citizens are worried in the truest sense of the word.
The result of this dynamic is a naked power-grab.
The mentally-ill are rounded up put on lists. Ex-convicts and police informants are pressured to name names. Secret police are deployed into the community, disguised as vagrants and invalids, surveilling innocent people without evidence or probable cause. Paranoid citizens begin turning on each other, spying on their neighbours, reporting them for the slightest indiscretions.
None of these actions lead to Beckert’s arrest. Instead, he’s caught by sheer coincidence, accused by a witness who more than somewhat ironically, happens to be completely blind.
M’s Impact On Future Genres
Much is made of the “leitmotif” that Beckert whistles as he stalks his young victims. Hall of the Mountain King is perhaps the film’s most well-known feature.
In addition to influencing the future use of short, melodic tunes to denote the presence of certain characters (Superman, Indiana Jones, Darth Vader—pretty much any score composed by John Williams), M’s use of a pneumatic device to identify its villain also deserves attention.
Without M, would we have had the nursery rhyme in Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers (1987)? Or Elle Driver’s whistling in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003)? What about the tongue click sound in Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018)?, or the creepy noise made by Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014)?
M was also an early example of what would later become the police procedural.
The way the police extract data from Beckert’s letters to the press, the use of fingerprinting and handwriting analysis, the radius maps and other clues posted on the police station wall. Without these details, would we have Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), or even David Caruso in Jade (1995)?
And let’s not forget about M’s influence on Film Noir.
Most of M is from the criminal’s point of view, whether Beckert himself, or the Rivereine Mafia, who view themselves as morally superior profit-driven crooks, not unlike the principled thieves that would later populate the films of Michael Mann.
M‘s depiction of police, politicians and criminals as morally bankrupt bourgeois masters is certainly consistent with the cynical, often conspiratorial worldview depicted in the Film Noir era.
So too are the tonal qualities of M, its eerie sense of surveillance, paranoia and dread, gradually building as the plot unfolds.
Lang’s use of composition is what really stands out, particularly the visual motifs that populate the final act.
Shadows, angles, framing, silhouettes, Beckert on the run in his big hat and long coat. The feeling of conspiracy. The glow of the streetlights. The city skyline looming large beneath the moonlight. Apartment building windows, lit from within, framed by pitch black building walls. And lastly, the man in the fedora’s ghastly silhouette, slowly entering the frame, leaning down toward the girl.
These elements would feel quite at home in the Film Noir classics of the 1940’s and early 1950’s, films like Cry of the City (1948), The Third Man (1949) or Night and The City (1950).
Most importantly, the presence of darkness and shadow conveys much more than just tone. M literally darkens as it moves toward its inevitable climax, with the third act taking place entirely at night.
As the lynch mob inches closer to subverting law and justice, the film becomes both literally and figuratively dark.
As modern viewers, we take this kind of symbolism for granted—but somebody invented this!
The use of shadow, most notably Beckert’s insidious silhouette in the film’s first act, also conveys more than just a vibe. Darkening shadows represent the growing threat of Nazism, and the gathering of storm of World War Two.
On a psychological level, although the film does not overtly reference psychoanalytic theory, it is not unreasonable to assume that Lang’s use of shadow was influenced by Freud’s (and later Jung’s) ideas about the subconscious mind, including the concept of the “shadow self.“
What I Like Most About M
To me, M’s opening scenes feel quite modern.
We don’t meet the protagonist until well after the opening sequence. Besides the police investigator, the characters that populate the prologue are essentially stock characters that function to establish setting, tone, plot and temporality.
The opening murder is implied through imagery and not explicitly shown. Of course, this was mainly due the moral sensibilities of the era, but the fact remains that visual storytelling was more important back when special effects, dialogue and music were difficult to record and execute.
The police interrogation of Franz, known to us in contemporary terms as “rendition”, mirrors the methods employed in the show trial that follows.
In this instance, mirroring is not used to express an intratextual motif, but to symbolize the unassailable relationship between law and justice.
Populist parties, democratically elected or otherwise, often brandish “justice” as a cudgel, duping naive voters into supporting laws that only really serve to strip them of their rights. These back to back scenes form a simple but poignant rebuke of the Nazi party: without the rule of the law, true justice is impossible.
Despite the fact that WE know for certain that Beckert is guilty, the film makes the point that at the time of his capture, the mob absolutely does NOT.
Why else would Fritz Lang choose to make the primary witness a blind man?
With this subtle narrative device, Lang puts the audience at the center of the show trial.
All of us become implicated. We are forced to reckon with our sense of justice. We are even forced to choose a side: the criminals who act as judge and jury, or the murderer himself.
In this particular instance, the kangaroo court has punished the “right” suspect.
But what about all the “wrong” suspects that will be apprehended in the future if due process and habeas corpus are abandoned in the name of so-called justice?
For anyone that still finds themselves aligning with the mob, the show trial ends with a final question:
How long until they come for you?
Should You Watch Fritz Lang’s M?
M closes with these lines: “One has to keep closer watch over the children. All of you.”
In this sense, “the children” are the future subjects of the Third Reich, who require the state’s rhetorical protection according to the twisted ideology promoted by the Nazi party.
M belongs on lists with films like Le Grand Illusion (1937), Ninotchka (1939), On the Waterfront (1954), Stalker (1979), and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014), films that present themselves as one thing, while really saying something else.
These films embody the highest duty of the artist: to question authority, to subvert the status quo, to deliver a controversial message that would otherwise be censored by dictatorial regimes.
Films like M do what cowardly politicians cannot: they challenge the legitimacy of authoritarian leaders, without legitimizing their language of oppression.
You can watch M for free on YouTube or The Internet Archive.
Fritz Lang went on to direct over thirty more films in his illustrious career. His work from the classic Film Noir period included Ministry of Fear (1944), Scarlet Street (1945) and The Big Heat (1953).
Peter Lorre starred in over sixty films during a career that almost nearly thirty years, including classic Noirs like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942) and Quicksand (1950).
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to read our posts on Somewhere In The Night and Carol Reed’s The Third Man.