Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Movies

M

Fritz Lang's M
Fritz Lang's M

Fritz Lang's M, which some interpreters have decided is about Peter Kürten (though Lang denied it) was released in 1931 as a black-and-white film noir. It features Peter Lorre in his first starring role and is included on the list of 100 Greatest Foreign Films.  Now digitally restored, with the final scene replaced, M premiered in Berlin to standing ovations.

Lorre plays a man tormented and driven by his compulsions, hating himself for what he cannot control — luring and killing children - and his actions draw not only law enforcement to chase him but the criminal underworld as well: Even other offenders think his clandestine crimes are bad for the neighborhood, because it draws too many cops.  This atmospheric film competently captures the creepy secrecy of a child molester, who also moans that no one can imagine what it's like to be him.  While Peter Kürten did kill children, he was much less focused on them than was the character in M.

Peter Kürten
Peter Kürten

Kürten was arrested in 1930, having attacked numerous people with various weapons and killing nine.  He used anything from hammers to knives, and he often drank the blood, especially from the temples as his victims bled to death.  Thus, he gained the moniker, "The Vampire of Düsseldorf."  When two of his victims were not discovered, he sent a letter to the local newspaper, with a map.  Yet as it turned out, he was a friendly, well-dressed, and seemingly responsible married man. After his arrest, people were shocked to learn about his violent deeds, including the slaughter of children.  Supposedly when he wrote his letter, he capitalized the "M" in murder with a red pencil, while the rest of the letter was written in a different color of ink.  His was the first case to be thoroughly studied by a psychiatrist.

Indeed, during the era between the world wars in Germany, images of sexual murder became part of the elite art scene, with many artists painting gory scenes, so it's no wonder that Lang felt inspired at that time to write his script.  In addition, during the 1920s, there were three serial killers who were also cannibals or who severely mutilated their victims.  Fritz Haarman liked to chew through their necks as he was raping them, and Karl Denke and Georg Grossman both collected body parts.

Fritz Haarman
Fritz Haarman

While the film itself bears little resemblance to the real story of Peter Kürten, it does portray the compartmentalized killer who can go through the motions of ordinary life and hide his terrible secret.  In fact, his theme song, which he whistles at significant times during the film, is Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King."  Lang's working title, in fact, had been, "The Murderers are Among Us."  The following year, another movie featured an even more malicious killer, and this plot inspired many more movies and television series.

 

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