Fritz Lang’s M (1931)
A simple line of dialogue uttered by a man on trial for murder — a man beseeching the unflinching figures that surround him to understand that he cannot control his homicidal tendencies, that they are, in fact, a part of his genetic makeup. A tragic flaw he can not overcome. A man, therefore, innocent of his own heinous crimes — or so he believes. The scene occurs partway through director Fritz Lang’s meticulously crafted masterpiece, M. It’s one of many memorable moments in this German Expressionist classic that challenges audiences to confront evidence of evil in all areas of society.
The central figure is Hans Beckert (a 26-year-old Peter Lorre), a notorious child killer on the run from the law. However, Beckert appears in only a handful of scenes, leaving M without a protagonist until the final quarter of the film. Lang instead opts to focus his attention on a slew of secondary characters who band together in the name of “justice” in an attempt to catch the predator. Despite the decision to keep Beckert out of the limelight, the killer’s presence is still felt throughout the film’s running time. With both the police and Berlin’s underworld bosses on the hunt for Beckert and his latest victim, a little girl named Elise (Inge Landgut), Lang expertly juggles his revolving cast of characters.
Released in Germany in 1931, during the Weimar era, M was Lang’s first foray into the world of talkies. So, it seems only fitting that M is sprinkled with scenes that contain very little, if any, dialogue. Lang utilizes long takes of Berlin’s streets and its citizens, opting to illustrate the city’s growing sense of dread and mounting paranoia through striking visual cues. Shadows flit across walls, muffled voices rise in anger and corrupt underworld bosses prowl the streets and get involved in the police investigation in a perverse attempt to sway the attention away from their own crimes. Beckert may be the central villain, but M is chock-full of loathsome characters and unjust procedures. Lang captures a city in chaos — one reeling from all the child murders in an era of great change for the nation of Germany. The hysteria, the anger is almost too much to bear. Is Beckert the real villain or is it the mean streets of Berlin in the 1930s?
Lang’s artistry as a director and storyteller is matched by the until-then unprecedented performance from Lorre. It’s a truly haunting performance — one that is part child, part monster. His tendency to whistle Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is both chilling in its implications (it always preceeds a child’s murder) and compelling in its childlike innocence. He’s more pathetic man-child than our grotesque, exaggerated image of a child predator. It’s Lorre’s “everyman” quality, and his remarkable performance, that make Beckert so chilling.
Lang, a man synonymous with both German Expressionism and film noir, created a towering cinematic achievement — one that continues to resonate with viewers to this day. We may never know what it’s like to be Beckert, despite his pleas for understanding, but that doesn’t make M any less of a classic example of remarkable storytelling.
Feature image is an original illustration from Bennett O’Brian.
More Images from M
Watch a Supercut of the Whistling in M