As disturbing as it is thrilling, Fritz Lang’s 1931 M – with its tale of a child murderer causing panic in Germany – sets some groundbreaking rules for serial killer movies to come and asks difficult questions about society’s responsibility towards mentally unstable individuals.
Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece M not only subverts every storytelling rule that there is, but most importantly, it documents a crucial era in German history. In its prescience, the film depicts a society at war with itself, few years before it engaged in real battle with its neighbouring, powerful nations. The police state seems already in full force, even before the Nazis took control of the country and made sure every citizen spied on each other. By antagonizing such a society with a truly despicable – albeit a pitiable one – individual, the film plays a magnificent and ambiguous game.
In an unspecified city in Germany, a child-serial killer is roaming the streets causing panic among the residents. With everyone paranoid, parents anxiously wait for their children outside the schools. Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) approaches little Elsie Beckmann and offers to buy her a balloon. Soon after she disappears. As the police increase their effort to find the culprit and the underworld organised crime gangs feel the presence of the law on the streets overwhelming, they decide to look for the killer themselves. It is then shown that the police’s and the criminals’ methods to solve the mystery are disturbingly similar. When the bandits identify the sick man responsible for the killings, they form a rushed court and condemn him to die. At the end, Beckert gives a passionate speech in his defence.
Are we supposed to think that the children being lured with sweets by Hans Beckert are a proxy for the German people who, at the time, were being led to the edge of a precipice by a sick man? Or that Hans Beckert himself represents the victims of circumstances who would eventually be brutally persecuted by an insanely sick society? Such ambivalence and double-edged meaning elevate this police drama beyond the mere titillating. There are plenty of people who feel uncomfortable about feeling sympathy towards such a despicable man, a killer of children, but the concept of sympathy implies understanding as well as pity. Hoping to comprehend a sick man’s mind and perhaps not to rush towards the harshest (and irreversible) punishment as the death penalty is in no way similar to forgive such an individual’s actions.
..M is for Murderer and N is for Nazism…
From the start the film presents us with remarkable set-pieces designed to provoke thought. The circle of children playing in the courtyard and singing the adult-themed song concerning the evil actions of a serial killer will definitely shock some viewers, who by and large possess a different frame of mind. Although for modern and enlightened Western audiences such a scene seems the portrait of a past and alien country, perhaps at the time, such confluence of worlds was already frown upon. From the balcony of the building facing the courtyard, the mother of one of the children yells at them to stop singing such an evil song. By all means, this is a picture of childhood that we all recognise, where children are innocent and are supposed to stay that way.
However, one must also understand that the overbearing, protective force field we place around children nowadays, in order to isolate them from sadness and pain, is indeed a very modern construct. Surely, it is right to avoid exposing children to carnage and sexual acts, but when, at a party, we place their little table with their kid menu meals apart from us, we segregate them from a healthy interaction with the adult world, which will prepare them for later life. Having them share meals with the adults not only teaches them about future relationships but also restrains the behaviour of the grown-ups. It is interesting that Lang places that scene at the very beginning of the film, for it indicates the convergence of both worlds. As children are aware of adult danger round the corner, the adult population will soon assume the role of children under the wing of a Big Daddy.
Rather more significant than the analogy between the police and the criminal world is the willingness of such a society to embrace a fatalist mind-frame in the form of an unforgiving approach to crime. It is perhaps understandable but nonetheless extremely ironic that this 1930s German city (is it Berlin or Düsseldorf?) – a community with plenty of petty criminals, engulfed in deep economic crisis and dominated by endemic corruption – seemed unable to show mercy towards someone unequivocally unstable. Just few years later worst crimes would be committed and very few indeed would bat their eyelids. In fact, the mob rule shown in the movie would dominated many aspects of German society until total destruction stopped it.
Some have noticed the way smoking is seemed to be fetishised in its depiction of long cigars, huge pipes and cigarette holders in the film. The most appropriate metaphor that I can come up with is about keeping unpleasantness at arm’s length. As Germany would eventually veers towards a path of no return, people seem to have made (perhaps subconsciously) a choice of looking away from their worst inclinations. If in fact, there’s no smoke without fire, then let us keep smoke hidden, away from us. These sets of dichotomies presented in the film – monster versus monstrous society; bad cops versus ‘good’ criminals; childhood semi-innocence versus a child-like villain – tell the whole story and it is a tale of total ambiguity.
It is impressive that M is one of the greatest of Fritz Lang’s films, for he made over 40 pictures and most of them are pretty solid. The images here presented have become iconic and intrinsically linked with the history of cinema.