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Theatrical release poster
Directed by Fritz Lang
Produced by Seymour Nebenzal
Written by Fritz Lang
Thea von Harbou
Paul Falkenberg
Adolf Jansen
Starring Peter Lorre
Otto Wernicke
Gustaf Gründgens
Ellen Widmann
Inge Landgut
Theodor Loos
Friedrich Gnass
Music by Edvard Grieg
Cinematography Fritz Arno Wagner
Editing by Paul Falkenberg
Distributed by Vereinigte Star-Film GmbH
Paramount Pictures (US)
Release date(s) Germany:
11 May 1931
United States:
3 May 1933
Running time 117 minutes
99 minutes (US)
110 minutes (2004 Criterion DVD)
Country Germany
Language German

M (German: M - Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder) is a 1931 German drama-thriller directed by Fritz Lang and written by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou. It was Lang's first sound film, although he had directed over a dozen films previously.

The film has become a classic which Lang himself considered his finest work.[1][2]



A group of children are playing a game involving a song about a child murderer. This foreshadows the appearance of Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a serial killer — and, it is implied, a pedophile — who preys on children in 1930s Berlin. Initially the audience does not see his face; they merely see his shadow, shots of his body and hear him whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King" by Grieg as he buys a balloon from a blind man and gives it to a little girl named Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut). In the next scene, her mother (Ellen Widmann) searches frantically as the audience sees the balloon ensnared in telephone lines, and subsequently floating away.

Meanwhile, the police, under Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), pursue the killer using then state of the art techniques such as fingerprinting and handwriting analysis. They also stage raids and question known criminals. This affects underworld business and some of the top crooks decide to get rid of the killer themselves so they can resume "business". The criminals enlist the help of the city's beggars to keep watch over the children and find the killer.

Thus a race develops between the police and the criminals to catch the killer, who is completely unaware of what is happening. He makes the mistake of whistling his tune again near the same blind balloon salesman. The blind man tells one of the criminals, who tails the killer using a beggar network. Desperate for a way to track him, one of them marks a large letter M (for "Mörder", meaning murderer in German) onto his own hand with chalk. He then claps Beckert on the shoulder, transferring the letter M onto the killer's coat.

Now able to track the killer, the beggars pursue him and, after calling the criminals to join them, ensue with a lengthy search of an office building, finally catch him. They bring him before a kangaroo court conducted by criminals; Beckert is even given a "lawyer". Beckert delivers an impassioned monologue, saying that the voices in his head compel him to commit these crimes, while the other criminals present break the law by choice. His "lawyer" even points out that the presiding "judge" is himself wanted on three counts of manslaughter. Beckert's monologue ends with the line "Who knows what it's like to be me?" As the criminals are about to kill Beckert, the police arrive, snatching him from their grip.

The final image of the film is that of five judges about to give Beckert his sentence. Before the sentence is announced, the shot cuts to three of the victims' mothers crying, with Elsie's mother saying that either sentence will not bring back the dead children. And, that "One has to keep closer watch over the children. All of you."


  • Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert. M was Lorre's first major starring role, and it boosted his career, even though he was typecast as a villain for years after in films such as Mad Love and the film adaptation of Crime and Punishment. Before M, Lorre was mostly a comedic actor. After fleeing from the Nazis, he landed a major role in Alfred Hitchcock's first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), picking up English along the way.[3]
  • Otto Wernicke as Inspector Karl Lohmann. Wernicke made his breakthrough with M after playing many small roles in silent films for over a decade. After his part in M, he was in great demand due to the success of the film, including returning to the role of Karl Lohmann in The Testament of Doctor Mabuse, and he played supporting roles for the rest of his career.[4]
  • Gustaf Gründgens as Der Schränker. Gründgens received acclaim for his role in the film and established a successful career for himself under Nazi rule, ultimately becoming director of the "Staatliches Schauspielhaus".[5]

Other cast

  • Ellen Widmann as Frau Beckmann
  • Inge Landgut as Elsie Beckmann
  • Theodor Loos as Inspector Groeber
  • Friedrich Gnass as Franz, the burglar
  • Fritz Odemar as Cheater
  • Paul Kemp as Pickpocket with six watches
  • Theo Lingen as Bauernfänger
  • Rudolf Blümner as Beckert's defender
  • Georg John as Blind balloon seller
  • Franz Stein as Minister
  • Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur as Police chief
  • Gerhard Bienert as Criminal secretary
  • Karl Platen as Damowitz, a night-watchman
  • Rosa Valetti as Elisabeth Winkler, Beckert's landlady
  • Hertha von Walther as Prostitute
  • Hanna Maron as Girl in circle at the beginning (uncredited)
  • Klaus Pohl as Witness / one-eyed man (uncredited)


Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, gazing into a shop window. Lang uses glass and reflections throughout the film for expressive purposes.

M is supposedly based on the real-life case of serial killer Peter Kürten, the "Vampire of Düsseldorf", whose crimes took place in the 1920s,[6] although Lang denied that he drew from this case.[7] "At the time I decided to use the subject matter of M there were many serial killers terrorizing Germany — Haarmann, Grossmann, Kürten, Denke," Lang told film historian Gero Gandert in a 1963 interview.[8]

Lorre's character whistles the tune "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. However, Peter Lorre himself could not whistle – it is actually Lang who is heard.[9] The film was one of the first to use a leitmotif, associating "In the Hall of the Mountain King" with the Lorre character. Late in the film, the mere sound of the song lets the audience know that he is nearby, off-screen. This association of a musical theme with a particular character or situation, a technique borrowed from opera, is now a film staple.[10]


A Hollywood remake of the same name was released in 1951, shifting the action from Berlin to Los Angeles. The remake was directed by Joseph Losey and starred David Wayne in Lorre's role.

See also


  1. ^ Reader Archive-Extract: 1997/970808/M
  2. ^ Kauffmann, Stanley. "The Mark of M". The Criterion Collection. Archived from the original on 2007-09-29. Retrieved 2007-01-12. 
  3. ^ Erickson, Hal. "Biography". Allmovie. Retrieved 2007-01-14. 
  4. ^ Staedeli, Thomas. "Otto Wernicke". Cyranos. Retrieved 2007-01-14. 
  5. ^ Staedeli, Thomas. "Otto Wernicke". Cyranos. Retrieved 2007-01-14. 
  6. ^ Morris, Gary. "A Textbook Classic Restored to Perfection". Bright Lights. Retrieved 2007-01-12. 
  7. ^ Ramsland, Katherine. "Court TV Crime Library Serial Killers Movies". Crime Library. Retrieved 2006-10-28. 
  8. ^ "Fritz Lang on M: An Interview," in Fritz Lang: M—Protokoll, Marion von Schröder Verlag, Hamburg 1963, reprinted in the Criterion Collection booklet
  9. ^ Falkenberg, Paul (2004). "Classroom Tapes — M". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 2007-08-08. 
  10. ^ Costantini, Gustavo. "Leitmotif revisited". Filmsound. Retrieved 2006-05-10. 

External links

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