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David Schalko Talks ‘M – A City Hunts a Murderer’

BERLIN — A desperate city hunts for a child killer in the six-part drama series “M – A City Hunts a Murderer,” a modern-day interpretation of Fritz Lang’s iconic film which world premieres Feb. 12 as part of the Berlin Film Festival’s TV strand, Berlinale Series.

The six-hour limited series is a Superfilm production by John Lueftner and David Schalko for Austrian public broadcaster ORF and Germany’s TV Now, the new streaming service of the RTL Mediagroup. Directed by Schalko (“Braunschlag,” “Altes Geld”), the series stars well-known German actors Udo Kier (“Downsizing”), Moritz Bleibtreu (“Atomised”), and Lars Eidinger (“Personal Shopper”).Beta Film is handling global sales.

Schalko spoke to Variety about the inspiration behind “M,” and how he faced the daunting challenge of reimagining Lang’s 1931 classic for the modern age of prestige TV.

In adapting Fritz Lang’s “M,” you’ve chosen to interpret and reimagine one of the landmarks of cinematic history. What made you decide to take Lang’s iconic thriller and adapt it to a contemporary setting? 

I revisited the film five years ago and I was once again fascinated by the concept of the town being the lead. It is great how Lang shifts between the characters and genres. I was also interested in the political comparison between 1931 and 2018. We nowadays also seem to live in times when civil rights are questioned, surveillance is a big matter and right wing politicians lose their inhibition to hide their ambition to destroy democracy and European peace.

The first episode of “M – A City Hunts A Murderer” unfolds in much the same way as the original. A missing child. A panicked city. There are deliberate visual echoes of Lang’s film, too. How did you balance the task of offering an homage to Lang’s film while reimagining the story in a way that’s entirely your own?

We took the main elements of the story and the structure. We also quote concrete lines of the original and put them into a different context. We tribute key visuals of Lang’s masterpiece, such as the balloon or the shadows. It is also a tribute to German expressionism. We tried to make a lot of scenes look like they were shot in the studio.

But actually it is a complete rewrite. So I wouldn‘t call it a remake. It is much more a homage. Done in our own style. It is like a cover version. Our “M” is much darker. Much more like a world-enraptured nightmare. A creepy, bizarre dream of a movie that already exists.

The original film is set against the ominous backdrop of Germany between the wars, when the Nazi party was on the rise. In your series, you’re tapping into a similar climate in today’s Europe, with far-right politicians exploiting the refugee crisis for their own political ends, and a sense that a darkening cloud hangs over the continent. It feels as if this story could have been pulled from the headlines. Did current events push and pull you in different directions as you were developing the script? 

We started writing four years ago. So many things could only be anticipated. The sad thing is that it feels like the whole thing would have been written two weeks ago. It is strange that we live in such wealthy and comfortable times and despite that we are urged to follow this dark spiral. Everybody feels where a journey like that could probably end. We have seen it. And everything is obvious and predictable. It is like a dark human force destroying things.

“M” was centered on a child killer, played so memorably by Peter Lorre, who is the focal point of the film. With this series, you seem more interested in using a wide-angle lens to look at how the killings are having a ripple effect across every layer of society. To borrow from the tropes of the police procedural, it feels like you’re conducting an autopsy, but Vienna is the victim. Is that a fair way to look at it?

 No, because every episode is focusing on different characters and different events. In the first episode we concentrate on a dysfunctional family. In another episode, the political milieu is in the foreground. The last episode is very similar to the original. This is the episode where the trial takes place. But our “M” is different from the original. We had to consider 80 years of film history of serial killers. Our “M” has a special motive. But I don’t want to spoil.

A series offers much more space to tell things. Especially a concept like “M,” with over 130 characters, takes advantage of this opportunity. If Lang would shoot “M” today, he probably would decide to do it as a series.

Despite being an homage to Lang, and a reimagining of his film, you’ve also crafted a fast-paced political thriller. Did you have any other influences that you brought to your work?

Probably there are a lot of people who have an influence on my work, I wouldn’t even know where to start. But we really tried to do something standing by itself. Otherwise a remake wouldn’t make any sense.

Choosing to adapt an iconic film for TV obviously brings with it certain advantages: You have six hours to develop characters, tease out different storylines, and perhaps expand the scope of the original material. Was there anything you found particularly difficult about trying to write and structure the story over a six-episode arc?

As I said, it was a complete rewrite. Today’s way of storytelling is very different from 1931. And to recycle an iconic film like “M” harbors also danger. At the end it is very comfortable for everyone to say: The original was much better. But anyway: to compete with Fritz Lang was not the reason to do it. That would be ridiculous.

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