M: The Safecracker

Gustaf Gründgens in M (1931)

Gustaf Gründgens in M (1931)


Gustaf Gründgens as “The Safecracker”, criminal community leader

Berlin, Fall 1930

Film: M
(German title: M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder)
Release Date: May 11, 1931
Director: Fritz Lang

WARNING! Spoilers ahead!


Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking masterpiece M was released 90 years ago. Self-described by the director as his magnum opus, M drew on the wave of sadistic child-murderers that had terrorized Germany through the previous decade—monsters like Carl Großmann, Fritz Haarmann, and Peter Kürten—to create a fictionalized cautionary tale centered around the crimes of Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a creepy little killer who signals his presence by whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, one of the first leitmotifs on screen as Lang experimented with the capabilities of sound in his first non-silent film.

As the increased police attention has disrupted Berlin’s underworld, the ruthless master criminal known only as “Der Schränker” (The Safecracker) calls together the city’s crime lords to form a united front against the killer. Lang deftly cuts between The Safecracker’s crime “commission” determining how they can capture the killer and the police and city officials having the same discussion, though it’s the crooks who land on a solution first: using their network of beggars to constantly surveil the city. The plan works, and Beckert is captured and brought to a kangaroo court in front of the entire Berlin underworld.

Much as Tarantino would recently do with Inglourious BasterdsDjango Unchained, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Lang provided a revisionist catharsis to the German public by bringing the desperate, pitiful Beckert in front of the mob—and even some of his victims’ families—to face justice, presided over by The Safecracker.

What’d He Wear?

The Safecracker’s daily garb of a leather trench coat over his suit portends what would become a long-associated costume of the Gestapo. The long dark leather coat has a tall collar similar to what’s known as a Prussian collar—appropriately enough—with a throat latch buttoned under the left side of the collar. The raglan sleeves are finished at the cuffs with short pointed half-tabs that each close through a single button.

The single-breasted coat has five buttons up the front, rigged with two more on each side of the chest, though The Safecracker foregoes buttoning any of these in favor of just fastening the coat’s pointed-end belt through the tall rectangular single-prong buckle. On each side of the coat, below the belt, a slanted pocket at hand level is covered with a single-button gently pointed flap.

Gustaf Gründgens in M (1931)

The Safecracker’s dark wool suit is woven in a manner that creates a self-striped texture. The trousers are finished with turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms, which break cleanly over his dark leather lace-up oxfords.

Consistent with the era’s trends, the single-breasted suit jacket has padded shoulders and wide, pointed peak lapels build up the chest to give the crime lord an even more imposing silhouette. Tailored with a suppressed waist, the two-button jacket also has a welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, and three-button cuffs.

Gustaf Gründgens in M (1931)

The white shirt has a point collar and double (French) cuffs, linked with a set of off-white cuff-buttons. His tie is a dark cloth.

We never see The Safecracker’s hands without his dark leather three-point gloves over them, even after he’s removed his coat and hat.

Gustaf Gründgens in M (1931)

The dark felt bowler hat is another key part of The Safecracker’s image. Also known as the derby hat—particularly in the United States—this round-crowned topper was first designed by London hatmakers Thomas and William Bowler in 1849, eventually establishing a reputation as the favored hat of London professionals for more than a century.

Three decades after M, the estimable Sir Hardy Amies would be rather possessive of his country’s development of the bowler, describing it as “the only truly smart headgear for a man, but it can only be worn in London or at a race-meeting.”

Gustaf Gründgens in M (1931)

How to Get the Look

Gustaf Gründgens in M (1931)

Gustaf Gründgens in M (1931)

The Safecracker’s signature look in M is certainly distinctive, though be wary that wearing your dark leather coat over a suit and tie doesn’t look too much like you’re cosplaying as a Gestapo agent!

  • Dark textured self-stripe woven wool suit:
    • Single-breasted 2-button jacket with wide peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, and 3-button cuffs
    • Trousers with turn-ups/cuffs
  • White shirt with point collar and double/French cuffs
  • Dark cloth tie
  • Dark leather oxford shoes
  • Dark leather three-point gloves
  • Dark felt bowler hat
  • Dark leather coat with Prussian collar, 5-button front, self-belt with single-prong buckle, raglan sleeves with pointed button-tab cuffs, and slanted hand pockets with single-button flaps

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

The Quote

We have to catch him ourselves.


  1. rasputin1066

    Wow! Thanks for posting this! I’ve heard of the film “M” for years, but have never watched it. Definitely going to change that!
    If you haven’t seen it, you should really watch “Babylon Berlin”. Its a German series based on the novels by Volker Kutscher and is set in the inter-war years during the Weimar Republic.

  2. jdreyfuss

    The man in a dark leather trenchcoat directing a secret force to hunt down an enemy of the state has unquestionable Gestapo vibes. Looking even further into the movie’s future, the same man in the same outfit coordinating a seemingly harmless everyday group of ordinary citizens in a dystopian society into his surveillance and intelligence network through their own mutual distrust makes me think of the Stasi as well.

    • Deke

      In the film, the Criminal element doesn’t want light shone on their activities, especially as a result of a man who is kidnaping, raping and killing children, the ultimate trifecta of crime. So they have to take care of the man themselves to save/recover their own operations rather than let the (ineffectual) government poking their noses in their business.
      The Weimar Republic period was and is the gold standard of criminality, vice and degeneracy in the modern era. It was this environment that brought forth the desire for Law and Order from average people. The Third Reich did not pop out of a hole in the ground, and was unfortunately the organic product of a wanton, wayward, broken society.
      After you watch “M” again you may want to watch “Cabaret” to get up to speed on why things turned out the way they did.

      • jdreyfuss

        I’m merely expanding on the comment luckystrike himself made in the article.

        “The Safecracker’s daily garb of a leather trench coat over his suit portends what would become a long-associated costume of the Gestapo.”

        To me, his behavior is more reminiscent of the stories told about the Stasi, in particular using the streets as his eyes and ears, and the Stasi were often portrayed in the same costume as the Gestapo. Since neither organization was in existence at the time the movie was made, this is all merely speculation on both our parts about how prescient Lang was in being able to predict the kind of secret police forces that his countrymen would come up with under fascist governments.

        • Deke

          You should read up on the uniforms of the early Bolshevik leaders in 1919-1921 before you post. The Tsarist secret police wore leather coats, and later Communist Revolutionaries (including Trotsky) dressed in head-to-toe leather, carried the ‘Red 9’ Mauser C896 well before the rise of 1920’s Fascist uniforms.

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