Fritz Lang (1890-1976) one of the greatest German film directors, who directed German and American films, considered M his greatest film. His mother was born Jewish but converted to Catholicism. Because of his family’s Jewish origin, he escaped Germany in 1934 and came to the US. M was filmed while he was still in Germany in 1931. It was his first film with sound. In Germany, in 1927, he directed the sci-fi film Metropolis, which is considered by many to be the best silent film ever.
The film stars Peter Lorre (1904-1964, he died at age 59). Lorre generally, as in this film, played sinister roles, but did act as a detective in a short-lived series. He made an international sensation in M, which was his first film. He acted previously on the stage. He was Jewish and escaped from Germany in 1933. His first English speaking film was Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” in 1934. He made it when he knew no English and his dialogue was written for him in phonetics.
The film takes place in 1930 when a German town is beset with about a half dozen murders of young girls for some eight months. The film is in German with easy to read English subtitles. Everyone in the town is perplexed and afraid. The police are confused. Suspects are harassed. Innocent people are arrested. People blame the police for inaction and hate them. The police raid clubs and other gatherings without success. They gather beggars who are found on most streets to look out for a man talking to young girls and offer a large award. Men talking to young girls are beaten by onlookers. There is pandemonium. The criminal element in the town is bothered by the search for the murderer because with the police watching everything, their opportunities to commit crimes is reduced. This fact plays a significant role in the film.
Fritz Lang told an interviewer that he likes a film where people can sympathize with the villain. Peter Lorre plays such a man. In the film he explains that he did not want to do what he did and usually does not remember what he did. It is an uncontrollable compulsion forcing him to kill young girls. This raises the question, assuming that he has such a compulsion should he be executed or sent to an institution where with time and treatment, he may be released and may, as some, including mothers of slain girls, scream out in the film, kill again.