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M (1931)
Photo: The Criterion Collection

M (1931) Film Summary

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M (1931)Vereinigte Star-Film GmbH released M to theaters on August 31, 1931. Fritz Lang directed film, and both he and Thea von Harbou wrote the screenplay. The film starred Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, and Inge Landgut.

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M Summary with Spoilers Below

Elsie Beckmann’s mother sets the table for dinner as she waits for her daughter to come home. On a street corner, we see a wanted poster about a man wanted for killing a number of children.

Elsie leaves school with her classmates, but she dawdles behind from bouncing a ball. Hans Beckert sees her, and begins to whistle Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” He approaches Elsie, and strikes up a conversation with the girl. Like any good child predator, he buys her a balloon from a blind man to get no her good side. While Elsie’s mom waits for her daughter to return, Hans kills the girl off screen. We are left to see her ball rolling away from some bushes, and the balloon stuck in some telephone lines above.

Elsie’s murder only increases anxiety in Berlin, but that isn’t good enough for Beckert. He sends a newspaper a rambling note to take credit for the killing, and he promises more soon. The police use the latest techniques of fingerprinting and handwriting analysis to glean any clue they can on this killer.

The process is slow and tedious. Unfortunately, it’s too slow for city leaders and their constituents. They order Inspector Karl Lohmann to step up efforts to quickly solve this case. As part of their increased efforts, Lohmann has some of his men check the records of psychiatric patients that have recently been released; specifically anyone who has a history of violence against children.

While they investigate, Der Schränker (The Safecracker) meets with other criminal heads to discuss the killer as well. The increased police raids are very bad for their business. They decide to start their own investigation into the killer’s identity using beggars as their eyes on the streets.

Time Begins To Run Out For The Killer

Soon, Inspector Lohmann’s detective work pays off. The list of names they received from the psychiatric wards leads to a person of interest—Hans Beckert. The police find evidence in his apartment that he wrote the letter that was sent to the press.

While he and his men wait for Beckert to return home, he is out for a stroll on the streets of Berlin. When he sees the reflection through a store window of a young girl alone, Beckert turns into a Mr. Hyde of sorts. He begins to whistle his killer tune, and pursues the girl. He is only stopped from killing her when the girl meets up with her mother. As Beckert tries to shake off his killing urges, he spots another girl alone, and he sets off after her.

He befriends this little girl, but as they walk along the street, the blind man who sold him the balloon for Elsie recognizes the distinct tune he whistles, and has one of his friends tail the two. Wisely, that man has enough sense to put a scarlet letter on Beckert’s back–a large M–to make it easier for someone to spot the killer should he lose him.

Eventually, Beckert realizes he’s being followed, and he runs off to an office building to hide. The beggars call the Safecracker for help, and he assembles a team to capture Beckert once everyone has left the building for the night.

They capture Beckert, but have to hastily flee the building when one of the night watchmen trips a silent alarm. They escape with Beckert right before the police arrive. Everyone manages to exit the building except for a man named Franz. He is arrested by the police, and Inspector Lohmann manages to trick him into revealing the identity of the man captured, and wherehe was taken.

Tried In A Kangaroo Court

The gang of criminals take Beckert to an abandoned distillery where he is tried in a kangaroo court. The “jury” of his peers is the very gang of criminals who captured him in the first place. They give Beckert a lawyer of sorts, and Beckert pleads his case to the silent crowd. He says he can’t control his urges while the criminals judging him consciously break the law on their own accord.

His “attorney” makes a plea to have him tried in a fair court of law. While it doesn’t work, it does buy Beckert enough time for the police to arrive and arrest everyone.

The film cuts to a legitimate courtroom, and as the judge is about to render his verdict on Beckert, Elsie’s mother proclaims that no sentence will bring back their dead children, and everyone “has to keep closer watch over the children…All of you.”

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Theatrical Trailer for M courtesy Criterion Collection

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