From Horror Movie To Horror Comic: M (1931)

Greetings, everyone!  Juliet here once more taking the blog reigns from Matt temporarily.  Today I’m going to take you From Horror Film to Horror Comic with a look at a film that made a huge impact on me, both on its own and because of its influence on the larger world of filmmaking that came after it.  I’m talking about Fritz Lang’s M, a serial killer story that helped set the stage for so many of the movies we know and love and celebrate as classics today.  So let’s get to it with a look at the killer Hans Beckert.

When we first meet Hans Beckert, he appears as a shadow on the poster warning villagers of the child murderer in their midst.  Although his first line is seemingly innocent enough, telling Elsie he likes her ball and asking her name, it’s chilling — especially for those of us who grew up in the era of Stranger Danger.  Although we never see it in the film (one of the many awesome things about M is that the murders are up to the audience’s imagination), it’s implied that he stabs or butchers his victims, likely very brutally.  Among his advantages are Beckert’s ability to blend into society seemingly undetected until it’s too late, but being a mere man he’s subject to the same harm any man can fall victim to.  Beckert’s mental state is another weakness; it drives him to kill despite his realization that it’s wrong, which pushes him to near madness and helplessness.

Now that we’ve met the titular “M” from M, it’s time to look at the film itself.  The description will be taken from IMDB, and then I’ll follow with some production history and my own history with the film.

“In Berlin in the early 1930’s, children are being lured to their death by a psychopathic killer. In the space of a year, 8 children have been murdered. The police have redoubled their efforts to find the guilty man but have yet to find him and citizens are beginning to dispense their own justice on otherwise innocent people. The heads of the city’s criminal element are paying a high price due to the increased police presence and decide to find the psychopath on their own. They approach the beggars union to have their members blanket the city with spies. They’re successful in finding the killer and put him on trial in their own special court but the police make progress and have their own views on how justice should be administered.”

Dubbed the Master of Darkness by the British Film Institute, Austrian-born filmmaker Fritz Lang began writing some ideas for films when he was recovering from injuries and shell shock he sustained while serving in the Austrian army in WWI.  Once he was discharged from the army in 1918, Lang worked briefly as a writer before being hired as a director for Germany’s UFA.  The Expressionist movement was at its zenith, and Lang would quickly claim his place among its makers with his particular talent for combining the visual techniques of the movement with popular genre storytelling.  

In 1930, Lang announced that he was making a film called Mörder unter uns (Murderer Among Us), which was to be about a child murderer, but when he went to begin shooting, he was denied access to a shooting stage because the head of the studio, a Nazi himself, assumed based on the title alone that the film was meant to depict Nazis in a bad light.  However, when he found out what the film was actually about, Lang was given access to the stage. M would go through several other names before its simple title was adopted.  The film was shot in six weeks and featured real criminals as extras in many of the mob scenes.  

As with all of his films from this era, Lang co-wrote M with his then-wife Thea von Harbou.  As of part of his research for the film, Lang spent time in a German mental institution talking to serial killers including Peter Kürten, known as the Vampire of Düsseldorf, who many people thought was a direct inspiration for Peter Lorre’s character, Hans Beckert, though Lang denied that.

Prior to his casting in M, Lorre was a comedic actor, but it’s said that Lang had him in mind for the role of the killer in M while the film was still being scripted.  It began Lorre’s first starring role, though it also began a trend of the actor being type-casted as a villain that would follow him to Hollywood. 

M was also, and perhaps most notably, Fritz Lang’s first sound film.  Unlike other, sometimes disastrous first forays into sound, M’s soundtrack is complex featuring narration, off camera sound, and narrative silence to build suspense.  It’s much more in line with what modern audiences are accustomed to the the majority of the “talkies” of the era.  The sound element most people instantly remember from M, however, is the whistling.  Using the tune “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” Lang used an opera technique called leitmotif where a melody is associated with one character throughout the entire story. Fun fact: Peter Lorre couldn’t whistle so the whistling you hear in the film is Fritz Lang himself. 

Although M isn’t technically the first film to portray a serial killer (both The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Hitchcock’s The Lodger had already done so prior to M’s release in 1931), it’s considered by many to be the first official serial killer film in a lineage that includes Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho, and especially the boom of films in the late 80s and early 90s that includes Silence of the Lambs, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, and Manhunter.  It gets this distinction because of its exploration of the complicated psychology of serial killers (without straying too far into the sympathetic) AND the conditions of a society where serial killers can thrive, if only temporarily. M, along with Lang’s other German films, is also considered to be one of the films which helped pave the way for film noir, both in terms of storytelling and theme elements and in terms of visual style.  

I first saw M when I was in film school in the early 2000s.  Although I left that program and pursued another major after two years, one of the things for which I’m most grateful from that time was discovering the German Expressionist movement.  Although I was aware of a some of the films from the movement (Nosferatu being the most obvious choice) and I was already a fan of silent cinema, getting to really know the work that paved the way for some of my favorite historic and modern genres (horror, science fiction, and film noir) was amazing, Lang quickly emerged as my favorite director and the subject of several of my papers.  Although Metropolis remains my favorite of his films, M is just stunning.  It’s a long film (nearly two hours), but it’s filled with incredible angles and lightning that make you want to watch multiple times — for the story and for how the visuals help tell the story.  You really can see the technical throughline from M to some of Hitchcock’s more seminal work to film noir to the serial killer films of the 80s and 90s. It had actually been a while since I watched M all the way through, but upon rewatching it to prepare to write this blog, I found myself once more enchanted and excited by this film…and wanting to do a full Lang rewatch.

Before I dive into Fritz Lang’s entire film catalog, however, it’s time to dive into the 90s comic miniseries based on M. Thanks to Bell Book and Comic and Lone Star Comics for having these issues.  As usual, we grade these comics on a scale of 1 to 4 and look for how well the comics stay to the source material, their entertainment value and their art and story. So whistle an eerie tune, and let’s see how a tale of murder translate from the silver screen to the page.

M # 1  **1/2
Released in 1990   Cover Price $5.95   Arcane/Eclipse   #1 of 4

In a German town, children play and sing a playful yet cautionary song about a murderer who will chop you up if you’re not careful.  In a tenement, neighbors go about their days work.  One wishes the children wouldn’t sing “the murderer’s song,” while another says that as long as the children are singing, their parents know they’re safe.  While her mother sets the table for dinner, young Elsie plays outside with her ball and encounters a shadowy figure who compliments her on the pretty toy. Soon the town receives news of a new murder, and the police receive a letter from the murderer saying that he could be anyone among them.  The townspeople take this idea to heart as anyone perceived as behaving suspiciously is indicted by the mob.  Meanwhile the police are working through their official investigation, trying to figure out patterns among the clues to narrow the search and figure out who might fit the psychological profile of the killer.  The assumption, of course, is that the killer must be part of the town’s seedy underbelly. The denizens of said underbelly, however, are equally frustrated – the murderer on the loose is making it difficult for their usual criminal activity to go on undetected, and it’s scaring their children.  The crime lords discuss this while they await Schranker, who, upon his arrival, tells his colleagues that they have business to discuss. 

The first thing that struck me about this comic book adaptation of M is how of its era it is with art and layout styles feeling right at home with other dark/horror titles of the late 80s and early 90s, which would pave the way for companies like Vertigo a few years later. That said, I wish that the start of this book had richer coloring/shading.  Although beautiful, some of it felt too soft for a film that’s noted for its high key, pre-noir style lighting and use of shadows.  By and large this was a good, albeit abridged adaptation of the film’s opening in terms of the story itself, but as with the shading, it fell a little flat for me when it came to capturing the chilling intensity of Hans Beckert’s encounter with Elsie.  Perhaps it does go back to the shading, but the lack of real, substantive shadows for Beckert in those panels made that moment less effective. All told, however, the first issue of the adaptation makes me want to continue reading the series. The sparing use of color is something I’ll discuss in regards to one of the next issues as I want to see how it plays out further into the story.  Before we get to it, I want to note that this issue came with (or comes with if you’re lucky enough to get an intact copy) an tear out record featuring an original score composition to accompany the comic on the A side and “Hall of the Mountain King” on the B-side.

M # 2: Crackdown  ***
Released in 1990   Cover Price $4.95   Arcane/Eclipse   #2 of 4

Schranker calls the meeting of the crimelords to order saying that someone outside their union is making it impossible for their work of organized crime to continue.  As the criminal leaders of the community, they must do something about this interference. Meanwhile the police discuss how to enlist the public’s help in identifying a killer amongst them without inciting a mob.  Schranker and the crimelords make better progress with their plan, enlisting the beggars’ union to help keep watch on suspicious activities and individuals.  As they station a man on every street corner, the police go door to door investigating a list of individuals who’ve been released from mental hospitals in the last five years.  An officer arrives at the building of Hans Beckert, and after chatting with a neighbor, he searches Beckert’s Room for clues. Meanwhile Beckert himself is wandering the streets whistling, lost in his own torment. He focuses on a girl, presumably his next victim, but abandons that course of action when her friends arrive.  Instead, he stops in a small eatery for a coffee and brandy, but leaves just as quickly as visions of dead girls are everywhere he turns.  Beckert’s whistling tips off a blind beggar who had been vending balloons the day Elsie was killed, and a chain of actions is set into play resulting in a chalk M being placed on Beckert’s jacket to alert the criminal mob to give chase.  But Beckert’s would-be victim notices the chalk, and when she offers to clean it off, Beckert realizes he’s being watched.

One of the things that M the film does really well is that it uses crosscutting to juxtapose the crime lords and the police planning and beginning their respective investigations.  This issue of the comic portrays that really well with the tinting to clearly indicate each group being a nice visual touch. Like the first issue, however, there are also moments that fail to capture the magic of the film.  This time around it was the whistling scenes where Beckert is grappling with and being tormented by his need to kill. I get it – it’s hard to translate something that’s so sound-dependent into a strictly visual medium.  The other thing of note is Beckert doesn’t quite look like Peter Lorre; my guess is that was necessary/intentional because of likeness issues.  It’s not a huge problem as writer/artist Jon J Muth captures the feeling of the scene with the chalk M well, it’s just a bit of a disappointment as so much of what makes that and many other scenes in the film is Peter Lorre’s facial expressions and acting. I did really like the way the final scene of the issue was drawn.  The chase on top of the train is so iconic, both for its role in this film and for all of the imagery it begat in thrillers to come to, and I thought it translated well to the page.  

M # 3: The Hunting  ** 1/2
Released in 1990   Cover Price $4.95   Arcane/Eclipse   #3 of 4

Having lost Beckert during their chase in the train yard, the crime lords and their men are on the lookout and receive a tip that their suspect is hiding in the railroad’s office building.  Meanwhile the police have returned to Beckert’s apartment for a stakeout, having discovered several clues in their previous visit linking him to the killer’s letter.  Schranker and his men perform an elaborate scheme to gain entry to the railroad office building after it is closed and neutralize the building’s guards without triggering any of the automatic alarms that will alert the police.  They want Beckert for themselves and will go to great lengths to extract him from the building.  As the police read a letter meant for Beckert that casts doubt on him as the suspect, Schranker’s men seemingly have Beckert trapped, but one of the building’s night watchmen manages to trigger the alarm.  Schranker and his men only have mere minutes to flee the building with their prisoner.

Have I mentioned that M also has elements of a classic heist film?  Well it does, though the target of the heist is a murderer not jewels or riches.  This issue of the comic book focuses, by and large, on the “heist” section of the film, and while the pacing is pretty good, this is the first issue of this series where I wonder if someone who’s either never seen or isn’t super familiar with the film would understand everything going on at the beginning with Schranker’s men getting into and searching/breaking into various parts of the building.  The end of the issue, however, is super solid and the back and forth between the action and Beckert’s reactions as his pursuers get closer is really great. The action is coming to a head so let’s get to the conclusion of the film and comic. 

M # 4: The Trial  **1/2
Released in 1990   Cover Price $5.95   Arcane/Eclipse   #4 of 4

Franz is in police custody, one of the criminals left behind in the confusion at the railroad building.  The police are willing to let him go free as long as he provides them with information about who the criminals were looking for and where they’ve taken him.  The answer is that Beckert has been taken to an abandoned distillery building, which Schranker and his men are using as a kangaroo court.  As the trial gets underway, a near mad Beckert launches into an impassioned speech about how he didn’t ask for and can’t control his murderous urges but that all of the people trying him are criminals by choice.  The criminal acting as Beckert’s lawyer argues for mercy, but the mob is thirsty for justice and blood.  Before they can be satisfied, however, the police arrive and Beckert once more stands trial, this time in a legitimate courtroom, as the mothers of the murdered girls look on and lament not keeping a closer eye on their children.

In this conclusion to M, we see some larger deviation from the film in Beckert’s hallucinations of his victims.  Although this doesn’t appear in the film, it’s a nice addition given how much adaptation had to be done to Beckert’s monologue.  As for the monologue, I think it worked, but this was definitely the place where it was most noticeable that they weren’t using Peter Lorre’s likeness for Beckert.  Not only were his incredible facial expressions missing throughout, but in this issue Beckert looked almost like a young Johnny Depp, really placing us in the era in which the comic was made, not necessarily the film.  Overall, this series was a really solid adaptation of the classic film.  Did certain things get cut?  Of course.  Having just recently written a film adaptation for Sparkle Comics, I have a renewed appreciation for the choices that have to be made when translating a film to comic.  So I don’t begrudge Jon J Muth his choices.  I also don’t begrudge him the graphite artwork, which I didn’t love in the first issue but got used to by the end of the series.  It’s not the style I would choose for this story, but it was really lovely. See below for some examples.

 Although M the comic doesn’t quite do M the film justice, it’s still an interesting read and worth checking out for fans of the films, especially those who are also fans of late 80s/early 90s comics.  Speaking of the 80s and serial killers, for our next update, Matt will be exploring 80s talk show The Morton Downey Jr. Show with a special focus on the slashers episode.  So until then, read a comic or 3, revisit your favorite classic films, and stay safe.

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