May 11, 1931 - M
In Berlin, a group of children are playing an elimination game in the courtyard of an apartment building, using a chant about a murderer of children. A woman sets the table for lunch, waiting for her daughter to come home from school. A wanted poster warns of a serial killer preying on children, as anxious parents wait outside a school.
Little Elsie Beckmann leaves school, bouncing a ball on her way home. She is approached by Hans Beckert, who is whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg. He offers to buy her a balloon from a blind street-vendor and walks and talks with her. Elsie’s place at the dinner table remains empty, her ball is shown rolling away across a patch of grass and her balloon is lost in the telephone lines overhead.
In the wake of Elsie’s disappearance, anxiety runs high among the public. Beckert sends an anonymous letter to the newspapers, taking credit for the child murders and promising that he will commit others; the police extract clues from the letter, using the new techniques of fingerprinting and handwriting analysis. Under mounting pressure from the Prussian government, the police work around the clock. Inspector Karl Lohmann, head of the homicide squad, instructs his men to intensify their search and to check the records of recently released psychiatric patients, focusing on any with a history of violence against children. They stage frequent raids to question known criminals, disrupting organized crime so badly that Der Schränker (The Safecracker) summons the crime bosses of Berlin’s Ringvereine to a sit-down. They decide to organize their own manhunt, using beggars to watch the children. Meanwhile, the police search Beckert’s rented rooms, find evidence that he wrote the letter there, and lie in wait to arrest him.
Beckert sees a young girl in the reflection of a shop window and begins to follow her, but stops when the girl meets her mother. He encounters another girl and befriends her, but the blind vendor recognizes his whistling. The vendor tells one of his friends, who follows Beckert and sees him inside a shop with the girl. As the two exit onto the street, the man chalks a large “M” (for Mörder, “murderer” in German) on his palm, pretends to trip, and bumps into Beckert, marking the back of his overcoat so that other beggars can easily track him. The girl notices the chalk and offers to clean it for him, but before she finishes, Beckert realizes he is being watched and flees the scene, abandoning the girl.
Attempting to evade the beggars’ surveillance, Beckert hides inside a large office building just before the workers leave for the evening. The beggars call Der Schränker, who arrives at the building with a team of other criminals. They capture and torture one of the watchmen for information and, after capturing the other two, search the building and catch Beckert in the attic. When one of the watchmen trips the silent alarm, the criminals narrowly escape with their prisoner before the police arrive. Franz, one of the criminals, is left behind in the confusion and captured by the police. By falsely claiming that one of the watchmen was killed during the break-in, Lohmann tricks Franz into admitting that the gang only broke into the building to find Beckert and revealing where he will be taken.
The criminals drag Beckert to an abandoned distillery to face a kangaroo court. He finds a large, silent crowd awaiting him. Beckert is given a “lawyer”, who gamely argues in his defense but fails to win any sympathy from the improvised “jury”. Beckert delivers an impassioned monologue, saying that he cannot control his homicidal urges, while the other criminals present break the law by choice, and further questioning why they as criminals believe they have any right to judge him:
What right have you to speak? Criminals! Perhaps you are even proud of yourselves! Proud of being able to crack into safes, or climb into buildings or cheat at cards. All of which, it seems to me, you could just as easily give up, if you had learned something useful, or if you had jobs, or if you were not such lazy pigs. I can not help myself! I have no control over this evil thing that is inside me—the fire, the voices, the torment!
Beckert pleads to be handed over to the police, asking: “Who knows what it is like to be me?” His “lawyer” points out that Der Schränker, presiding over the proceedings, is wanted on three counts of manslaughter, and that it is unjust to execute an insane man. Just as the enraged mob is about to kill Beckert, the police arrive to arrest both him and the criminals.
As a panel of judges prepares to deliver a verdict at Beckert’s real trial, the mothers of three of his victims weep in the gallery. Elsie’s mother says that “No sentence will bring the dead children back” and that “One has to keep closer watch over the children”. The screen fades to black as she adds, “All of you”.
Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert
Otto Wernicke as Inspector Karl Lohmann
Gustaf Gründgens as Der Schränker (The Safecracker)
Ellen Widmann as Mother Beckmann
Inge Landgut as Elsie Beckmann
Theodor Loos as Inspector Groeber
Friedrich Gnaß as Franz, the burglar
Fritz Odemar as Falschspieler (Cheater)
Paul Kemp as Taschendieb (pickpocket with seven watches)
Theo Lingen as Bauernfänger (con man)
Rudolf Blümner as Beckert’s defender
Georg John as blind balloon-seller
Franz Stein as minister
Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur as police chief
Gerhard Bienert as criminal secretary
Karl Platen as Damowitz, a night-watchman
Rosa Valetti as innkeeper
Hertha von Walther as prostitute
Hanna Maron (uncredited) as girl in circle at the beginning
Heinrich Gotho as passer-by who tells a kid the time
Klaus Pohl as witness / one-eyed man (uncredited)