With a child-murderer in their midst the people of a German city are gripped by fear. The police crack down on known criminals in an effort to find the killer. This disrupts crime in the city, and so, the criminal fraternity set out to find the offender themselves. They track him down and the police arrive just in time to save him from death at the hands of a kangaroo court.
M is an extended meditation on evil and its presence within society. It is also an exploration of the reactions of society to this presence. Human beings are shown as being fascinated by evil. Lang points to the vicarious pleasure we gain from reading about it: newspaper sales, for example, take off in this city with a child murderer on the loose. The magazine salesman who comes to Elsie’s mother’s door functions within the plot as a means of increasing suspense during the tense opening minutes of the film, but is also very deliberately seen to be offering the public something ‘suspenseful, captivating, sensational’. These words could also be used to describe both the product Lang is putting before his audience, and what we are looking for as we very deliberately and intentionally sit down to ‘enjoy’ the film.1
Lang portrays a society that is very willing to condemn evil (in others), and to call for the death penalty to be carried out; screaming faces cry ‘Kill the murderer’, and ‘Put this animal to death’ at the climax to the scene in which Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) finds himself before the ‘court’ organised by the criminals. It is also a society in which the public can quickly become a mob; an elderly man helping a young girl is quickly surrounded by a crowd, and a pickpocket who is being arrested is mistaken for the murderer and attacked. The public at the ‘trial’ sit as might an audience for a play starring Lorre, a well-known theatre actor, but continually teeter on the brink of giving way to their pack instinct. They are controlled by the mock form and order given to the event by the leader of the criminals, Schranker (Gustaf Grundgens). But they are also stirred to a pitch of intensity by this same man, who like a Fascist orator can become passionately animated. ‘A man who claims about himself that it was forced upon him to destroy lives: that man must be extinguished like a bonfire! That man must be obliterated: wiped out!’ he rages at one point.2
Germany in 1931 is a country quickly moving towards being taken over by Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party. After the humiliation of the peace conditions imposed on the country at the end of the First World War, a proportion of the population had been willing to entertain the extreme right-wing politics of this party. Now, after the full impact of the global economic depression that started in 1929 has begun to bite, and with millions unemployed, the audience for their ideas has grown considerably.3 The Nazi Party’s brown-shirted militaristic wing, the Sturmabteilungen (SA), has begun to openly attack Jews, Communists, trade unionists and others in the streets. As an artist, it is becoming increasingly difficult, not to say, dangerous, to include even liberal democratic social sentiments in your work.
When, in the film, we see the authorities deciding what is to be done about finding the serial killer, we realise it is not just Schranker who employs terminology that sounds as if it is moving us towards a totalitarian state. The solution from one is: ‘Increase ID checks, systematic searches of the whole city, and raids.’ From another: ‘Every home-owner, landlord, everyone owning property must be forced to consent to detailed searches.’ And when we move to the criminals discussing the same situation the cry from one of them is: ‘We need more informers!’ These elements of the dialogue effectively sum up the increasing difficulties felt by those of a liberal persuasion living in Germany.
In the end, Beckert is shown as having a greater capacity for self-reflection than Schranker. He knows where the evil resides, that it is within himself. As he describes it: ‘Always I have to roam the streets and I always sense that someone is following me. It is me! And I shadow myself! Sometimes I feel like I’m hunting myself down. I want to run – run away from me! But I can’t! I can’t flee from myself!’ Beckert knows the dark heart, the alter ego, is always there. Schranker, on the other hand, has no awareness of the irony of forcefully advocating a drive to ‘extinguish’, to ‘obliterate’, to ‘wipe out’ even as he condemns somebody else for their drive to ‘destroy lives’.
One artist who did consistently produce work of social protest in the period that was directed especially against the brutality done to the young by war was Kathe Kollwitz. In black and white drawings and prints she depicted grieving mothers and women with their arms wrapped protectively around their children. The final frames of Lang’s film show three women in black at the end of Beckert’s proper trial. The one at the centre is the mother of Elsie Beckmann, the child killed at the start of M, and she addresses us directly. ‘This will not bring our children back’, she says. ‘One has to take more care of them.’ The shot then fades to black before her final word comes across the screen in a gentle pleading voice, ‘You!’ Lang’s final sentiment4 echoes Kollwitz, and the connection makes it clear that he is attempting to talk about more than just serial killers in this film.
Kollwitz was also an artist who depicted poverty and working-class life with compassion. And again, Lang does the same. At the beginning of the film, the domestic routine of the women in the tenement where Elsie lives is portrayed with tenderness and attention to detail. Later, the police investigation allows for a documentary-style shot inside a hostel for homeless men; two long rows of men, described as ‘the vagrant population’, are tightly packed on camp-beds. Within the narrative we have a city in which the streets are so alive with beggars that the criminals can easily organise them as spies to look for the murderer without suspicions being raised; and, on the back of this, Lang (himself invalided out of the army during the war) can use shots of a legless man and another with one leg, begging.
Lang, however, is aware that situations are complex rather than simple. And so, he presents an understanding of the position of the poor and the economic context of the time,5 but also voices more critical perspectives on the public in general. ‘Most of the public still think, “What’s in it for me?” It never occurs to the masses that what happens to even the poorest or most unknown child on the street is a matter for everyone’s conscience’, says one official. Similarly, lest we should think Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) is simply the voice of common sense, Lang gives a shot of him from a very low angle beneath his desk that presents him as a rather fat slob with a cigar who quite enjoys questioning suspects. Most importantly of all, he makes sure we see exactly how brutal the members of the crime world are in reality when they question a night-watchman at the factory where Beckert is hiding.6
Finally though, it is worth remembering that as we are watching this film all of the attention so far offered here to contexts needs to be placed alongside an awareness of Lang’s artistry. If we just take the opening to the film, for example, we find that without any graphic images we are moved quickly and frighteningly towards the first murder within just eight minutes of the film starting. Interestingly, despite the speed with which this takes place in overall screen-time, the audience is made to feel every second that passes. The clock on the wall ticks; Elsie bounces her ball to the rhythm of a ticking clock; her mother moves with slow, heavy steps; the camera holds shots for longer than is necessary; and the editing cuts backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. There is much more that could be said about the meticulous detail of the construction, but as one more example consider the shots of empty spaces with which we are confronted in this opening. The shot of Elsie’s ball rolling into an empty patch of wasteground signals her death, but see how we have been prepared for this. We have had shots of an empty landing, an empty stairwell, an implied empty street (as Elsie’s mother leans from the window to call her name), back to the empty stairwell, an empty loft-space, an empty chair, and only then, the empty patch of wasteland. The ball rolls into shot from right to left, against the more normal movement of left to right across the screen, and in the same direction as the balloon moves as it is taken out of the telegraph wires by the wind in the next shot.7
Lang’s dramatic use of sound is also often commented on.8 Beckert, for instance, hauntingly whistles the most famous few bars from ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’, part of Edvard Greig’s music to Henrick Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt. That the pace of the music becomes faster and more insistent as he is driven towards committing murder is entirely appropriate, but the work is also thematically relevant. This is a play set in the Land of the Trolls who are used by Ibsen as a symbol of evil. The trolls were originally the implacable enemy of man and would eat unwary travellers who strayed into their land after dark. In the end it is difficult to pin down simple, straight correspondences between events and characters in M and Germany as an emerging totalitarian state, and in the end the film is much richer because of this. However, there are sufficient oblique thematic links like this to push an audience towards these sorts of reflections; and there were enough perceived connections to mean the film was banned in Germany in 1934 when the Nazis came to be fully in command of the country.
1. The nursery rhyme the children sing at the beginning of the film about the ‘bogeyman’ coming to get them quickly and efficiently reminds us of the crucial role given to evil in popular/folk culture.
2. This is not a one-off moment of ranting from Schranker. When we first see him he enters a room in his black leather coat and within a few minutes is clenching his fists and proclaiming: ‘This monster has no right to survive. It must disappear, be eliminated; exterminated without mercy or scruples’.
3. In the elections of 1930 the National Socialists gained around 6.5 million votes compared to well under a million in 1928. They became the second largest party in the Reichstag with 107 seats. In 1932 the Party polled almost 14 million votes and won 230 seats.
4. And he has recorded how important Thea von Harbou’s contribution was to this. See Gero Gandert, ‘Fritz Lang on M: An Interview’ in Barry Keith Grant (ed.), Fritz Lang: Interviews, Jackson, MS, University Press of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 33–7.
5. With carefully chosen dialogue we learn, for example, that Beckert has been taken to an old distillery that ‘folded in the Depression’ and since then has been ‘abandoned and nobody gives a damn about it’.
6. Earlier a camera has travelled along the haul the police have made from their raids on criminal haunts and revealed in amongst the burglary tools and stolen goods, knives, pistols and vicious-looking knuckle-dusters.
7. When Elsie comes out of school a few minutes earlier she tries to cross the road from right to left back across the shot and is almost run over by a passing car. (We have also, incidentally, been prepared for these wires, scored violently across the screen, by earlier shots of washing lines.)
8. See, for example, ‘M (1931) or Sound and Terror’ in Stephen Brockman, A Critical History of German Film, Rochester, NY, Camden House, 2010, pp. 113–27. Also Todd Herzog, ‘Fritz Lang’s M (1931): An Open Case’ in Noah Isenberg (ed.), Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era, Columbia University Press, 2009, pp. 291–310.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Germany. Production Company: NeroFilm AG. Director: Fritz Lang. Screenwriters: Thea von Harbou and Lang. Cinematographer: Fritz Arno Wagner. Cast: Peter Lorre (Hans Beckert), Otto Wernicke (Inspector Karl Lohmann), Gustaf Grundgens (Der Schranker), Ellen Widmann (Frau Beckmann), Inge Landgut (Elsie Beckmann), Theodor Loos (Inspector Groeber), Friedrich Gnass (Franz, the burglar).]
Anton Kaes, M, London, BFI, 2000.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.