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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Horror History Vol. 2 - Fritz Lang's "M" and The Vampire of Düsseldorf

So last week we talked about the movie Freaks and how it was based on Writer/Director Tod Browning’s real experiences in the carnival.  This week, I want to stay in that era but discuss a very different film.   Instead of being reviled like Freaks, this movie was instantly seen as a classic.  I’m talking about Fritz Lang’s superb film M (1931). 

If you’re unfamiliar with it, Peter Lorre stars as a serial killer who preys on children.  He is unable to control his compulsions and eventually becomes hunted by both the authorities and the underworld.  It’s a fantastic film and Lorre gives a truly creepy performance.  Fritz Lang declared it to be his finest work, which is saying something when you consider that this guy also gave us Metropolis (1927), The Big Heat (1953) and the Dr. Mabuse films. 

Even those who are familiar with it may not realize that Lang was influenced by a real life killer who preyed upon Düsseldorf, Germany from February to November of 1929.  I’m talking about Peter Kürten A.K.A. The Vampire of Düsseldorf.   This is one of the more disturbing stories I’ve come across, just because of the ferocity and frequency with which Kürten struck.  It’s even more horrible when you realize how many times Kürten was released from custody and allowed to kill again.  In fact, let’s play a game and count all the times they put him away.

Kürten left school in 1897 and became an apprentice to a molder.  Eventually, he stole everything he could from his employer and disappeared to start a life of petty crime in Koblenz.  It didn’t take long for the police to catch up with him and send him to prison for the theft. 

Custody Count: 1

However, he didn’t stay in long.  By August of 1899, he was out and it was only a few months later that he committed his first murder.  At the time, he got away with it (he confessed years later), but he was picked up by police in 1900 for fraud.  Since it was a second offense and there were some other charges against him including attempted murder of another girl, he got four years in prison. 

Custody Count: 2

In summer of 1904, Kürten was released and drafted into the army.  As soon as he got a chance, he deserted.  This was when he began a string of arsons (he later confessed to 24).  Again, he was captured but this time since he’d deserted, he got more time added to his sentence.  From 1905 – 1913, Kürten was imprisoned and during this stint, his madness really took hold. 

Custody Count: 3

If there was ever a time for the government to say to themselves, “This guy may be a serial criminal” you’d think it would be now.  Unfortunately, no one bothered with that and instead they released him again.  This time though, he was definitely a different animal than when he’d gone in.  During his incarceration, he’d fully embraced the part of him who found sexual pleasure in committing murder. Once back on the street, he didn’t waste any time getting to work.  By May, he’d killed a 9-year-old child while she slept.   The day after the murder, he returned to the area and sat in a tavern listening to the locals gossip about the killing.  Later, he would visit her grave and think fondly of what he’d done.

Two months after that, he killed another girl during the course of a burglary.  He got away yet again, but was later picked up on a separate count of arson and burglary.  He would go to prison yet again and this time would stay there until 1921. 

Custody Count: 4

When he was released this time,he was still twisted but somehow decided to try leading a normal life.  He met a woman, married and took a job as a union official.  In 1925, he and his wife moved to Düsseldorf and during this time, Kürten began having affairs with two different women.  He got away with it for a while, but eventually his wife found out and when she confronted the two women both said Kürten seduced them.  One even claimed he’d raped her.  That charge was dropped but once again Kürten  found himself going to prison.  This time it was for the seduction charge and the fact that he threatened both women when all of this came out.    

Custody Count: 5

It's this fifth stint in the slammer where Kürten snaps completely.  The next time he’s released he wastes no time killing people. His victims ranged from the elderly to the young, men and women.  He did not discriminate and he confessed later that he got a sexual thrill from the murders.  He used scissors, knives and hammers.  He even tried to drink his victim’s blood which is how he earned the "vampire" nickname.  His last victim was found stabbed 34 times. 

Ultimately, Kürten was caught and convicted of nine murders.  He was also found guilty of seven counts of attempted murder.  Apparently in 1930's Germany, the sixth time was the charm.  He was executed by guillotine in July of 1931.

Fritz Lang went on record as saying that Kürten was not an inspiration for his movie, however that's difficult to believe.  For one, Lang was German and was very familiar with Kürten’s case.  He couldn't help but be since it was a sensation in the papers.  Also, the timing is very suspicious because his movie debuted the same year that Lang is finally executed.  This would put Lang writing it not long after the trial and all the press coverage.  

Even if you want to believe Lang was oblivious to all of this, there's no doubt that Peter Lorre’s portrayal of the character was influenced by what he’d read in the papers.  Lorre comes across as the ultimate creeper whose compulsions are overwhelming.  It’s a performance that will still grab you 87 years after its debut.

There’s a morbid side note to all of this.  If you happen to be traveling through Dell, Wisconsin, you have a unique opportunity to actually see Kürten for yourself.  His head rests at the Ripleys! Museum in Dell.  French authorities split the head in half to observe the brain of this twisted killer.  The mummified split head hangs by a chain in a glass case for all to see.

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