by Hayley Mohr
M, directed by Fritz Lang in 1931 and written by Lang and Thea von Harbou, tells the story of Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a child molester and murderer at large and terrorizing the populace of Berlin. The city’s police force, criminal underworld, and citizens all fruitlessly search for the murderer. This film was released at an explosive time in German history and explores modernist themes to great effect, particularly those surrounding mass culture. Besides epitomizing Weimar culture, M is also noteworthy for its use of sound, new for its time. At the time of its initial release, the film garnered only mixed reviews and a modest box office return. Critics now hail the film, however, as a masterpiece: in a 1995 survey of hundreds of German film critics and scholars, M was voted the most important German film of all time.
The film opens with a black screen and a little girl’s voice singing a gruesome rhyme in a sweet voice about a real-life serial killer in Weimar Germany: “Just you wait a little while, the evil man in black will come, with his little chopper, he will chop you up.” The camera moves back and forth between the characters of Elsie Beckmann, who is the only child to walk home from school unaccompanied by a parent, and her mother, who is shown working busily at home preparing Elsie’s lunch and gradually becoming uneasy as Elsie does not return home. Elsie is approached by Beckert, who buys her a balloon and hums a distinctive melody and begins to walk with her. The camera also lingers over posters that implore, “Who is the murderer?” Later, the balloon is shown tangled in some telephone wires before it floats away, revealing Elsie as Beckmann’s most recent victim.
The serial murders have left the city uneasy, and citizens are shown accusing each other. The police, led by ruthless Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), work all hours of the day, but so far, they have only produced insignificant clues: cigarette butts, sugar grains, and an empty candy bag. Because the police search every street corner and raid every suspicious hangout, Berlin’s criminals are beginning to fret: the constant crackdowns are leaving them unable to do their jobs. The leaders of the criminal gangs in the city assemble secretly to discuss what must be done in order to return the situation to normalcy. The meeting is orchestrated by the most notorious criminal between Berlin and San Francisco, Schränker (Gustaf Gründgens). The footage of the criminal meeting alternates with scenes of the best of the police, both groups attempting to solve the same situation.
The criminals devise a plan to watch every location in the city through those in the Beggar’s Union, who are able to watch without arousing suspicion. Inspector Lohmann decides to investigate mental health records for any candidates who were released and have the same mental condition as the child-murderer. A montage follows, showing the implementation of both plans: the beggars vigilantly monitor all of the children while, at the same time, a police inspector visits Beckert’s residence. Beckert is not home, but the inspector clues definitively linking Beckert to letters that the murderer mailed to police and the press. Meanwhile, Beckert is shown wandering the streets of Berlin. He sees a potential victim and begins to follow her, but is thwarted when the girl meets her mother shortly after. Beckert is thrown into a nervous panic and calms himself with some brandy. He passes in front of the same blind beggar from whom he bought the balloon for Elsie Beckmann. The man recognizes the tune that Beckert is whistling again and sets the beggars on his trail. The beggars watch him as he strolls along with another little girl. One of the beggars cleverly manages to mark Beckert’s back with a chalk M, so that he can be identified.
The girl eventually points out the mark to Beckert, who becomes frightened and abandons his pursuit as the beggars begin to close in on him. They chase him into a large building and guard the exits. The criminals decide to search the entire building at night, subduing the two watchmen and breaking into the bank on the first floor and investigating every possible hiding place. After a suspenseful search, the criminals find the murderer in a storage compartment inside the attic of the building. The criminals make off with Beckert, but a bank burglar is left behind. The burglar confesses the criminals’ plan and location to the police, who had spent the night waiting in Beckert’s apartment.
Meanwhile, the criminals hold a trial for Beckert, and all demand his execution, except for one man who is appointed to be his defense counsel. This man claims that Beckert’s compulsiveness excuses him from culpability. Before the trial ends, the police rush in. The film ends with a scene of Beckert’s public trial, punctuated by Elsie’s mother’s plaintive admission: “We, too, should keep a closer watch on our children.”
M was referred to in 1931 as a “Zeitfilm,” a film that illustrated the pressing concerns of modernity: urbanization, consumer culture, and a changing society. One of the first modernist elements explored in M is mass culture. Anton Kaes writes that Lang sought to associate mass culture with mass murder. In the opening scene, Mrs. Beckmann receives the latest installment of a popular serial murder story, a scene that alternates with the last shots of Elsie Beckmann before she herself is murdered. The sale of “serial murder fiction implicates Lang’s own film as it capitalizes on the public’s strange fascination with murder and mayhem (Kaes 28). Elsie’s murder is followed by a scene of newspaper sellers yelling, “Extra! Extra!”, further feeding the public’s desire to pore over accounts of these murders. Kaes writes that “serial crime reinforced the newspapers’ own seriality” (29). Lang, at the very beginning of the film, wants to show that even Elsie’s own mother joins in the public’s fascination with murder. There is also some evidence, although denied by Lang, that he and von Harbou based their story on the real-life serial murderer Peter Kürten, who was also pursued by the criminal underground of Düsseldorf for disruption of their activities. Nevertheless, mass murder was a popular theme in Weimar Germany and Lang also wanted to emphasize the involvement of a public that fed off of these stories.”
M also concerns itself with competing forms of justice. The power of organized crime was a new topic to be dealt with in Weimar Germany (Kaes 20). Frequently, the police and criminals are shown in alternating scenes, working towards the same goal. Both the criminals and the official justice system hold “trials” for Beckert. While the criminals devise a scheme that will leave no part of the city unwatched, the police stumble onto Beckert only by chance as part of a decidedly less efficient search method. Present in this comparison is the idea that “organized justice, while better, is the longer, less efficient method.” Inspector Lohmann and Schränker, leaders respectively of the police force and the criminal underworld, are notable for their similarity in method, as when Lohmann lies to a criminal to force a confession just as Schränker tortures a captive into cooperating. Both sides are willing to dispense with protocols in order to achieve their mission, highlighting how Germany in 1931 was “no longer governed by rule of law, but swayed by the pressure of mobilized masses” (Kaes 53).
M was the first film in which Fritz Lang used sound. Anton Kaes writes that “Lang wanted sound to be independent from the movie itself so that it might mediate between the film and the audience, just as in early film a lecturer stood next to the screen and explained the movie’s action to the audience” (10). The first sound that the audience hears is the rhyme chanted by the children in the courtyard, playing a game of “You’re Out,” sending the message that “rhyme (not reason) decides who will be next” in both the game and in who will be murdered by the serial killer. Sound is used to memorable effect directly before and after Elsie’s killing. When Elsie is murdered, the film goes silent and is punctuated only by Mrs. Beckmann’s calls for her: “sound affirms presence and life, silence connotes absence and death” (Kaes 13). Indeed, Mrs. Beckmann expresses this same sentiment to a friend who complains about the children singing a dreadful rhyme—“as long as they’re singing, at least we know they’re still there” (Lang 16).
M belonged to a new movement in Germany known as “The New Objectivity.” This movement, a reaction to expressionism, emphasized “despondency, cynicism, and the abandonment of faith,” exemplified in the film’s melancholy tone and comfortless ending (Ott 155). A theater counterpart to M could perhaps be found in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, which also showed a criminal underworld that “equated lawbreakers with police” in the same way that the montages of Lang’s criminals and police do. M is noteworthy for its dark commentaries on Berlin city life in 1931, its prescient diagnosis of a sensationalizing, press-dependent public, and the problems of justice. It stands as a true German masterpiece.
- ↑ Anton Kaes, M (London: BFI Publ., 2000), 7. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
- ↑ Fritz Lang, M (script), trans. Nicholas Garnham (London: Lorrimer, 1968), 15. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
- ↑ Frederick W. Ott, The Films of Fritz Lang, 1st ed. (Secaucus: Citadel, 1979), 155. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
- ↑ Paul M. Jensen, The Cinema of Fritz Lang (New York: Barnes, 1969), 98.