I'm Sticking to Veggie Dogs 

Monday, January 08, 2007

After years of curiosity, I finally watched the 1931 film M.

The Criterion copy reads: "Behind every great suspense thriller lurks the shadow of M. In this, Fritz Lang's first sound film, Peter Lorre delivers a haunting performance as the cinema's first serial killer, a whistling pedophile hunted by the police and brought to trial by the forces of the Berlin underworld."

I've ony known Peter Lorre in Arsenic and Old Lace, Casablanca and the dreadful 1939 Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (where he plays a Japanese man), and thus saw him more as a creepy gagster. Now I know how far creepy goes in describing him.

But what I didn't know is that he was Jewish and fled Germany soon after the film's release, supposedly warned by Josef Goebbels himself.

Peter Lorre was born László Löwenstein in Rózsahegy, in 1904 a part of the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, now Ruzomberok in Slovakia. By 22, he was a bank clerk by day and an actor by night (from The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by Stephen Youngkin).

The actor fled first to Paris in February 1933, then to London to play in Hitchcock's 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much, and, in July of that same year, he made his way across the Atlantic to the US.

The 1933 Nazi propaganda film, The Eternal Jew, used his image in M as the stereotypical Jew, and the film was finally banned in July 1934.

He also played the first Bond villain, Le Chiffre, in the 1954 Casino Royale. He inspired numerous cartoon versions of himself, in Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck episodes, in Porky Pig's portrayal of Mr. Motto, a fish in Dr. Seuss's Horton Hatches an Egg, the Booberry cereal mascot, Ren in The Ren & Stimpy Show, a character in Corpse Bride, and others.

Much like Bela Lugosi, he never managed to avoid typecasting as a villain and later as a parody of himself. As one critic put it, Youngkin, the author of the exhaustive biography, wonders if Lorre thought "he should have stayed in Europe and faced Hitler."

Fritz Lang, the director, left in 1933, soon after Goebbels offered him (and he refused) the role of the director of the German Cinema Institute. The position eventually went to Leni Riefenstahl.

M was based on a number of Weimar murderers:
Peter Kürten (1883-1932) - The Düsseldorf Vampire attacked men, women and especially little girls, starting with a burglary in 1913 and sometimes stabbing as many as three people in a day. On his way to the guillotine, he asked, "Will I still be able to hear, at least for a moment, the sound of my own blood gushing from the stump of my neck?"

Fritz Haarmann (1879-1925) The Butcher of Hannover, had a Hitler moustache like Kürten, but got away with more murders because he killed vagrants and male prostitutes. He killed his victims in true vampire fashion, nipping them at the neck, and later sold their clothes and their flesh as "pork." Once, a merchant took the "meat" to the police to air his suspicion that it was human flesh; the police said it was definitely pork.

Karl Denke (1870-1924) This organ player killed and ate at least thirty people, sometimes selling the meat on the loca market. The Mass Murderer of Munstberg hanged himself in his cell the night of his arrest. He had a full beard.

Carl Grossmann (1863-1921?) The Berlin Butcher also committed suicide in his cell; police found the remains and blood of at least four victims in his apartment; he may have killed up to fifty young women. He sold the flesh on the market, and, like Haarman, throwing away the "non-edible" bits into a river. Now, are you ready for this? He also had a hot dog stand. The extent of his facial hair is unknown.
Peter Kürten is most often recalled as the single inspiration, though someone pointed out that the children's rhyme at the beginning used Schwarzer Mann ("Black Man") which originally was "Haarmann" for Fritz Haarman.

One of the early sound films, M uses sound to heighten the foreboding, as detailed in a Criterion essay - in the opening shot, the children sing of the murderer and how he chops his victims; the mother's frantic calls for her daughter over a shot of an empty attic; the murderer's whistling before we even see him. Visually, I was delighted with the idea of the M and of the would-be victim politely and unwittingly handing Lorre his dropped knife.

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Nice essay! And thanks very much for the mention of "The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre" and links to the book's official website. Stephen Youngkin is a friend of mine, and I have passed on your blog to him. Thanks again!

Thanks for the nice words, Cheryl!

I am looking forward to reading Mr. Youngkin's book. It was borrowed from my local library and it will be available in a month or so.
I don't wish to be nitpicky, but I feel someone as deeply invested in the morbid and the macabre as you should have these things down pat: the correct past tense for hanging a person is hanged -- or, as they say, people are hanged, pictures are hung.

People can be hung, too, but that's something different.

I missed that - and how funny!

Oops. It's corrected now.

Thanks for pointing it out!
I shared this post with a film buff at work and he said, "M is justifiably considered a classic--Lorre's eerie whistling of "In the Hall of the Mountain King" is one of those perfect confluences of sound and vision in the cinema that will stay with you for a long time." However, I took the film home this weekend. Sure, all those powerful images you point out in your post are there, and they are so creepy! But the story itself was a little weak. Kind of like The Scarlet Empress, an early film with a lot of fantastic images but creaky nonetheless.
Luke, I didn't think the story was brilliant, but it was passable. I rather liked the juxtaposition of the police and underworld detectives, though that part was hardly horrific or suspenseful.
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