Udo Kier and Moritz Bleibtreu star in Austrian TV’s six-hour remake of Fritz Lang’s classic 1931 thriller about the search for a serial child killer.

Sporting the same title as Fritz Lang’s iconic 1931 film starring Peter Lorre as the serial killer, the new six-episode television remake M – A City Hunts a Murderer makes a decidedly less frightening thriller on the small screen. It combines the primal horror of murdering children with the cheerful banality of a TV police procedural, occasionally wandering off into comic territory. One would think the story of a child murderer doesn’t lend itself to comedy, but this Austrian television production, shot on location in wintry Vienna, sprouts dark humor.

Clearly, the series’ director, co-screenwriter and co-producer David Schalko sees his M as fundamentally reflecting the modern world, and he focuses on the rise of a surveillance society and the shameful way headline-grabbing crimes get exploited for political ends. Here, a right-wing minister uses the murders to attack immigrants and push for greater homeland security. There are also irritating asides related to the manufacturing of fake news, warring parents, the horrible things that children sometimes witness, etc., all of which distract the viewer from the dramatic heart of the story. Gratuitous full frontal male nudity and scenes with graphic sexual content earmark the series for adult audiences.

If the first two (of six) 50-minute episodes shown in the Berlinale TV Series sidebar are any indication, this version is more watered down than souped up, and the only parts that really work are those that closely imitate the original mise-en-scene and screenplay written by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou. The engrossing opening scene, for example, shows the heart-breaking last hours of 8-year-old Elsie. When she comes home on a cold snowy evening without her red jacket, her annoyed mother (Verena Altenberger) sends her back to the playground to get it. A clown selling strange child-shaped balloons watches her disappear into the night. But at the deserted playground, Elsie is terrified to find a large fox sniffing around her jacket. Cut.
She will be one of several missing children, as the police launch a manhunt and the news media howl for justice.

Elsie’s fox appears quite obviously linked to an eerie photographer (Udo Kier at his most seductively glowering) who runs around in a tatty fox fur coat snapping pictures of all and sundry. But the first two episodes suspend the big reveal of the murderer’s identity, and hopefully it will prove to be someone less likely.

There are other suspects. A man in a candy store. An awkward teacher. A psychic who steps forward. The police even suspect Elsie’s parents, who are fighting over the husband’s (Lars Eidinger) extramarital affairs. Then there is Sophie Rois, who plays the role of the sadistic queen of the underworld and the commander of an army of beggars, and who is bound to become more prominent in later episodes. In an outrageous scene not likely to be forgotten, she punishes a beautiful call girl by forcing her to perform fellatio on a cactus she is holding, while the prostitute's small son watches. The consequences are made light of when the woman and her son visit a doctor to have the spines removed from her bleeding, disfigured mouth. How can this be funny?

German star Moritz Bleibtreu (Run Lola Run) plays another villain, a news editor with close ties to the vain interior minister (Dominik Maringer) who likes to preen naked in front of the mirror before taking meetings. Among the police, an inspector played by Sarah Viktoria Frick wins sympathy for her persistence, though one wishes she would stop eating on the job.

The starkest contrast between the TV series and Lang’s M is on the technical level. Lang’s film is a masterpiece of Expressionist cinema, and the remake rightly makes no attempt to mimic the scary abstract camerawork of Fritz Arno Wagner, a key German cinematographer in the Expressionist film movement who also shot Murnau’s Nosferatu. On its own merits, Martin Gschalt’s naturalistic cinematography, particularly the snowy outdoors scenes, has a forlorn appeal. The 1931 film had no outdoor shots; it was filmed entirely in a studio near Berlin.

Lang’s first sound film, M made innovative use of sounds like the murderer’s skin-crawling whistling of Edvard Grieg’s "In the Hall of the Mountain King," which is reprised to good effect by music supervisor Dorit Chrysler.

Production companies: Superfilm, ORF, TV Now with support of the Austrian Television Fund, Vienna Film Fund
Cast: Udo Kier, Moritz Bleibtreu, Lars Eidinger, Verena Altenberger, Sarah Viktoria Frick, Christian Dolezal, Dominik Maringer, Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg
Director: David Schalko
Screenwriters: Evi Romen, David Schalko, based on the 1931 film M by Fritz Lang
Producers: John Lueftner, David Schalko
Director of photography: Martin Gschlacht
Production designer: Hannes Salat
Costume designer: Alfred Mayerhofer
Editor: Christoph Brunner
Music: Dorit Chrysler
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Series)
World sales: Beta Film

Running time: 6 x one hour