Monday, November 16, 2015

Criterion Blogathon: Fritz Lang's M

"The man in black will soon be here, whith his cleaver's blade so true, he'll make mincemeat out of you."

And that is how Fritz Lang's 1931 film M starts. Reminiscent of A Nightmare on Elm Street's "One, two, Freddie's coming for you...", the children's rhyme in M does two things: it lets you know that there is a killer on the loose, but it also speaks to the "it won't happen to me" mindset of the children. Kids being kids, they worry about nothing at their own peril.

And as with any great horror flick (M certainly can be classified as horror if you have children), the evil is shown first only in the abstract--a silhouette, an anonymous antagonist stalking the city's children, luring them with trinkets and treats.

Juxtaposed against the children's rhyme is the parent's ever-increasing panic in calling for her daughter, Elsie. This young girl is the only victim we see during the course of the movie, but the genius of Lang's film making is that he never shows "the deed"--we see a balloon purchased for the girl floating into electrical wires, and a small ball rolling from behind a bush. It is the individual viewer's own horrific imagination that creates the crime. The viewer is now emotionally invested in the outcome; the story isn't told to us, we are in the story.

The killer is a man named Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre--who was cast as Beckert because Lang wanted someone who looked like he couldn't possibly be a murderer. If Lorre fit that description, I'd hate to see who was rejected!), and the next time we see him he is not in silhouette, but writing a letter to the press a la Jack the Ripper in 1888 London. Beckert's letter reads: "Because the police did not publish my first letter, I am writing now directly to the press! Proceed with your investigations. All will soon be confirmed. But I'm not done yet!" A feeling of being slighted and disrespected; daring the police to come for him, and promises of horrors yet to come.

The authorities are put into overdrive trying to find the killer--cops working extra shifts with little sleep, going door-to-door to search for clues. It's interesting to see the use of "CSI" techniques of analyzing fingerprints and small evidence such as a candy wrapper found at Elsie's crime scene. There is even a psychological profile made up based on Beckert's letter:

Fear and paranoia take root in the city as friends at a local club accuse each other of murder, the police search homes because neighbor accuses neighbor, and even the innocuous action of telling the time to a little girl gets an old man in trouble.

Although there is no film score, and silence plays a major part in M, the film is not completely devoid of music. As Beckert is writing his letter to the press, he casually whistles Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Peer Gynt, and it is this music we hear whenever the evil inside Beckert grows restless.

Silence can be cathartic, or it can enhance fear and tension. Fritz Lang uses that silence for the latter purpose while the police are spreading throughout the city in their search for Beckert. The cops, the criminals, the regular citizens, and even Beckert himself are living in fear--fear of a continuing murder spree, fear of continued interruption of dubious activities, fear of losing a child...and fear of being caught. Beckert's actions are touching everyone.

As the dragnet continues, a meeting is convened with all of the leaders of the various crime "divisons". It is expressed that the cops' continuous raids and inability to find the Beckert (although they don't yet know his name) is hampering the criminals' ability to conduct their "business". With needing to take care of the women of those who have been incarcerated for other offenses during the dragnet, the syndicate is running out of money to conduct their own operations. There is honor among these thieves, and their livelihoods and families need to be protected: "We conduct our business in order to survive, but this monster has no right to survive! He must be killed, eliminated, exterminated! Without mercy or compassion!"

Fritz Lang then shows another interesting juxtaposition--seamlessly intermingling scenes of the underworld devising their plan of action with scenes of the authorities doing the very same thing. Where one ends, the other picks up, showing that they have different methods to accomplish the same goal of finding the killer. All throughout, cops and criminals alike start and finish each other's sentences.

We then see the beggars within the criminal syndicate register their names in order to be assigned a specific section of the city, much like the police would do in creating a search grid. This methodical and efficient system allows the syndicate to cover a great deal of ground in order to monitor the city's children. Not one child will be out of sight.

Meanwhile, Beckert buys every day items from street vendors, looks in shop windows, and otherwise goes through the mundane motions of any other day. Until, that is, he sees the reflection of a young girl in a window. His face changes to something ghastly, and he carries himself differently...

We hear the ubiquitous "In the Hall of the Mountain King"...

He stalks...

His efforts are for naught; the girl's mother finds her, and a child is mercifully saved.

The pace really starts to pick up once the blind balloon-seller from the beginning of the film, Heinrich, hears "In the Hall of the Mountain King". He remembers the tune and makes the correlation between it and Elsie Beckmann's murder, so he sends another of the syndicate to follow the tune. Beckert is found buying fruit for the young girl, her innocence being lulled into false security and safety.

In order not to lose Beckert, the man following him draws an 'M' on the palm of his hand with a piece of chalk, walks up behind Beckert, and slaps him on the shoulder, transferring the 'M' onto Beckert's coat. At this moment, through various other clues, the police have been placed on Beckert's scent as well. They discover red pencil shavings matching the type of pencil used for the letter to the press, and the rough wood of the windowsill match to the uneven markings on the note.

With the syndicate now aware of the 'M', he will now be stalked as he has done to others so many times. Watched, followed, and hunted. The plan almost goes awry when Beckert's potential victim points out the mark on the shoulder of his coat. When he sees the reflection, he knows he's being pursued.

("Oh, ffffff....")

As he races for his life, Beckert hides out in a nearby building, going door to door and floor to floor in search of a place to hide. Finding a spot near some wooden storage rooms, the syndicate has flooded the building. Beckert is captured after making just a little too much noise while trying to make his escape, and he is brought to an underground lair (I mean, where else would all the criminals gather?) for the highlight of the film: Beckert's trial by his "peers".

Many of the actors in this scene are actual criminals.

When confronted by the "judge" saying that Beckert must not be allowed to plead insanity in front of a legitimate court because he would then be released to continue his crimes, Beckert's response is, "But I can't help it!" Thus begins his philosphical, and psychological, mini-study of crime and mental illness. Beckert points out that those who are sitting in judgment of him have skills that are put to nefarious purposes, and the individuals before him may actually be proud of these skills and their accomplishments. But, he also believes the acts committed by his peers could easily be given up for a different life. He, however, cannot give up what it is that drives him to murder: "Don't I have this cursed thing inside me? This fire, this voice, this agony?"

"Don't want to! Must!"

Beckert continues to describe his curse, always roaming the city and "sensing" that he's being himself. He's being driven to do the horrible things he's done, and there's no escaping it: "And with me run the ghosts of the mothers and children." It is the relentless pursuit by what is inside of him and the ghosts that drive him to murder, and it is only in the act of murdering that he feels any sort of release...until it is completed, when he remembers nothing, yet knows what he's done.

Only after being sentenced to death by the kangaroo court does Beckert's defense counsel rise to speak. He makes the case that the compulsion to kill requires an acquittal..."And a man cannot be punished for that which he is not responsible!" And now we are at the crux of the debate, aren't we?

That the crimes committed by Beckert are of the most heinous nature cannot be denied. What Lang does, though, is puts viewers in the position of deciding the appropriate course of action. Lang points out in one of the special features on the Criterion disc that most of his films deal with social evils and how they are handled. M asks whether Beckert should be summarily slaughtered at the hands of the very underworld of which he is part, or should he be delivered into the hands of legitimate authorities? In short: What is justice?

Although Lang doesn't show us what happens to Elsie Beckmann, he does show us which form of justice is meted out to Hans Beckert. It is up to us to decide if it was appropriate, but we are also left with this final statement uttered by Elsie's mother: "This will not bring our children back. One has to keep closer watch over the children. All of you!"


This review is part of the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy. Be sure to click on the banner over there on the right to check out all of the other great entries.

Criterion Blogathon


  1. This movie is truly frightening, particularly when we consider the political climate which followed shortly thereafter. Very well written and entertaining post, I loved the line, "If Lorre fit that description, I'd hate to see who was rejected!" Seriously, can you imagine?
    This is one of my favorite early German films I love it for its subtlety, filmmakers today could learn much about building tension and fear from this film! Bravo, sir!

    1. Thanks, Summer! Glad you enjoyed it.

      When Lang spoke about his reasons for choosing Lorre, I actually had to go back and watch it a couple of times to make sure I didn't hear him incorrectly. I'm still not convinced I really heard Lang say it.

  2. Peter, you have painted Lang's story so well! The fetish of child's balloon & ball... innocence destroyed and the creepy use of Grieg's song, I agree with you about Lang's use of silence that is more powerful and creates more fear in these moments. I'll never forget them... This is a stunning review and a great contribution to the @CriterionBlogathon

    1. Thank you so very much!

      It was the silence that struck me when I first saw the film; it makes such an impact. It really makes the viewer engage in a way that wouldn't otherwise be possible with a score.

  3. PS: Your images aren't showing up, at least while I'm viewing it in Firefox. Maybe the links are broken, it's probably Wordpress' fault. They wreaked havoc with me for a month! Cheers Joey from The Last Drive In...

    1. Bummer! If anyone else is having problems, please let me know.

    2. It is a bummer! Your piece is still fantastic. Can u figure out what's up?

    3. Hmm, I'm not sure. I checked it out from Firefox and Microsoft Edge, and I'm not having any issues with the images. Have you tried looking at the site from Chrome?

  4. Still has the power to disturb and unsettle, even now when we're sadly more used to these things than those audiences were, shows how incredible and raw these images are. Lang is a favourite director and love to see his work covered in this blogathon, thanks so much for joining us!

    1. Thanks to you and the other hosts; this week has been a blast.

  5. You've really captured some of the most enduring scenes in this film. It's not always easy to do in words. Great piece!

  6. Ack – your images aren't showing up. :(

    Oh well, it's such a great review that it doesn't suffer for the lack of images. I really enjoyed reading your synopsis, and I thought you made a good point about Lang putting his "viewers in the position of deciding the appropriate course of action." He's a clever one, that Fritz Lang.

    Thanks so much for joining the blogathon! :)

    1. Thanks! I haven't had a chance to go back and fix the photos, but I appreciate your kind words. I love when a director puts the audience in the film rather than telling us everything.