M (1931). 110 minutes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Peter Lorre (as Hans Beckert), Gustaf Gründgens (as The Safecracker), and Otto Wernicke (as Inspector Karl Lohmann).
It has often been pointed out that M is a terrific example of a film that bridges the silent and talkie periods. M was German director Fritz Lang’s first talkie, and it makes use of sound in a very interesting way. For many early filmmakers, their first ventures into sound became opportunities to show off the new technology by using sound constantly and extravagantly — hence the large number of musicals in the early days of sound films. Lang’s M was different, though, in that it actually contained many evocative, intensely silent passages and, at other times, very carefully and strategically used sound. For example, early in the film, we come to know that young Elsie Beckman (played by Inge Landgut) has disappeared for good when we spy her balloon silently trapped in the wires of a telephone post. At the same time, we come to know Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre), the child murderer who takes Elsie’s life, because of the tune he compulsively whistles, Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” — an early example of a leitmotiv in film.
The plot of the film concerns Beckert, a crazed serial killer who preys on young girls in a German city that is never explicitly identified but which is probably Berlin. As Beckert’s crimes mount, the local hoods find that their own ability to thrive as criminals is infringed upon. They are held in suspicion by the police who are on Beckert’s trail, and the murder investigation disrupts their efforts to earn a living. Perhaps even more importantly, they are offended by the suggestion that someone in their ranks would be capable of such heinous deeds. There is a lot to like about this masterful movie, but for some reason this particular aspect of the story sticks with me more than any other. The criminals’ delicate sensibility, their anger towards the police for suspecting them, reminds me of archetypal scenes in other crime dramas in which lawbreakers draw a line between what they find to be acceptable criminal behavior and what they find to be repugnant. Those of you who have seen The Godfather (1972) will recall the scene in which Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) rebuffs a fellow gangster who suggests that the Corleone crime family begin to deal in narcotics, or you might also remember the scene in Goodfellas (1990) where mob boss Paulie Cicero (played by Paul Sorvino) tells the recently paroled gangster Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) that the drug trade has no place in their business. For the mafia, these policies against drugs are strategic moves: Corleone and Cicero are concerned about what the inclusion of new and dangerous criminal territory will mean for their existing business. At the same time, all of these scenarios simultaneously involve morally duplicitous characters who nevertheless make a case for having retained their own versions of standards and ethics in spite of their belonging to the proverbial underworld.
Director Fritz Lang is relying on us to be fascinated with this complex world of surprising moral twists and turns. In a truly exceptional sequence at the film’s conclusion, the criminal underground (organized by a group of outlaws who are led by a crook known as The Safecracker, played by Gustaf Gründgens) puts Beckert, whom they have hunted down and captured, on trial in a claustrophobia-inducing basement. They appoint Beckert an attorney from their ranks, and as this “trial” proceeds, it quickly becomes difficult to tell who is morally in the right, or at the same time, who is deserving of our sympathy. Beckert’s mock-attorney, who actually does a fairly good job of defending him, points out that The Safecracker is himself wanted on two counts of manslaughter: does this information change how we feel about The Safecracker’s righteousness in his crusade to try Beckert and sentence him to death? And then there is Beckert’s testimony itself, which consists of an impassioned performance by Peter Lorre, who uses all of the standard silent film-era techniques for emoting on camera — bulging eyeballs, wild gesticulations, hands tearing at the face and hair. But here these are not merely stock gestures that suggest an internal state: they are evidence of madness itself. In this scene, not only is Beckert forthcoming about what he has done, he also seems to have a significant amount of insight into his crimes. He says that leading up to a murder, he hears voices and feels an urge that he cannot contain. It is a horrible experience in his account, and it is hard not to feel pity for him, strange as it may seem, while watching him dissect his detestable state of mind.
If Beckert’s actions are being driven by a madness that he cannot control, it is interesting that much of the other violence in the movie is committed by characters who are presumably quite in their right mind. I am thinking of the crowd scenes spread throughout the film, and in particular of one scene in which a crowd of angry pedestrians mauls an innocent person because they suspect him of being the killer. We see that our expectations of a certain amount of normalcy on the part of ordinary people in the street are thwarted by demonstrations of a mob mentality. No one wants to be a little girl alone on the streets of this city while Beckert is on the prowl, and yet there is reason to feel that being an adult on the streets of this city while people are searching for Beckert is also not a guarantor of safety. Our faith that everyday people are the repository of a fairly decent moral compass is not upheld by much of the film. There is a lot of ugliness in Lang’s city, moral and otherwise; Roger Ebert has argued that there are many unattractive faces in the film, and that Lang is using physical repulsiveness to critique then-contemporary German culture.
Lang is deliberately playing with our confidence in our ability to see and label accurately. When earlier in the film, the criminal underworld organizes a city-wide system to catch Beckert, it makes use of street beggars to scan crowds for strange men. When a blind balloon-seller recognizes Beckert’s whistle, he signals to the local beggars and they follow Beckert. One of them marks an M (for Mörder, the German word for murderer) on the palm of his hand with chalk, then knocks into Beckert, transferring the letter to the back of Beckert’s coat. Beckert can then be tailed throughout the city blocks with ease as a manhunt is organized.
But labeling Beckert with the M is the easiest part of the hunt. His pursuers use it to identify Beckert as he moves from block to block. How, though, are we to understand them? Their labels do not come so easily. And of course, even when we hear Beckert confess his crimes in that final scene in the kangaroo court, it is still difficult to make sense of our feelings for him as he is both a cruel and violent monster by his own admission and also a terrified, baby-faced man. M‘s conclusion suggests that there are horrors hiding everywhere, and these horrors are not easily understood. The film’s vision of evil is laden with nuance and uncertainty. Rarely has a crime drama been so willing to show us a world in which the society in pursuit of the criminal has been so evocatively and complexly tainted.