I had made Die Nibelungen, Metropolis and Girl in the Moon. Big films, crowds and so on. I got tired of this kind of film and I was thinking of simpler stories. I was talking with Thea von Harbou, my wife. What was the most abominable, the greatest crime which we reject? We decided, let’s write some nasty son-of-a-bitch stories. And one day I came to her and said ”Listen, darling, let’s make a film about a child murderer who is forced by a power within him to commit a crime which he afterwards resents very much.” And then we made M.
Those days there were lots of horrible crimes in Germany. There was a mass murderer in the Rhineland, and many reviewers said that was the inspiration, which is not true. M was finished long before this mass murderer. At the Berlin Scotland Yard I saw the result of many murders. One case I will never forget—a small shop where a woman was murdered, and the murderer cut her throat and the blood just dripped over the counter into an open sack of white flour. I will never forget that my whole life. Another one was in a big apartment house where they found chopped-off hands on a plate under the bed of the murderer, where he was cooking something. There was a man on the border of Germany and Czechoslovakia who killed travelers and made sausages out them and sold them, and the people liked them very much. It was a horrible time.
I first saw Peter Lorre on the stage. He came to Berlin and was in two plays, and my idea was to cast the murderer differently from what Lombroso has said a murderer is: big eyebrows, big shoulders. You know, the famous Lombroso picture of a murderer.* And so I used Peter Lorre, who nobody would think to be a murderer. I had a big fight with Peter. In the kangaroo court scene, which I shot at the Staaken Zeppelinhalle, he didn’t want to come because he was playing at night in Squaring the Circle and had rehearsals. I had to force him. I said, “Look, I will bring an injunction against you because I have a contract with you.” And so he came, and we shot the last scenes and we didn’t talk until it brought on a great success, and then we talked again.
I remember one thing that was very funny. Thea von Harbou and I sat for two hours in front of the room where the censors were looking at the film. We didn’t have to be ashamed, and yet you look there like a schoolboy worrying if you got a good note or not. Finally they came out and they said, “Mr. Lang, this film has practically everything about which we disagree and which we cannot accept, but it is done with such integrity that we don’t want to make any cuts.”
It’s very peculiar because in M there’s no love story, and I’ll tell you what happened. A young man came to me—very elegant. But he had a very peculiar reputation. He asked me if I would like to make a film with him, and I said no. I didn’t want to make films anymore. I wanted to become a chemist. And he came again, and I said, “Let me tell you something. I will make a film for you, but you have no rights except to give me the money for what the film costs. You will have no rights to subject, no rights about cutting, no rights about casting.” He accepted this. Otherwise M would never have been made, because it has no love story, nothing.
* Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) was a highly influential Italian criminologist and physician known for his study of the relation between mental and physical characteristics.