Screening Log #57: M (1931)

Written by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang
Directed by Fritz Lang
Starring Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, and Gustaf Gründgens

 

 

 

I’ve never been one to put too much stock into historical context when reading any form of narrative, whether it is fiction, poetry, visual, etc. There is a definite utility in being informed about the conditions under which a work is generated, but historical context does not supersede the material implicit in the work itself, it merely fills out and heightens the work a narrative does. There are instances, however, where the spectre of the zeitgeist so thoroughly permeates a work that its reverberations cannot help but manifest themselves thematically and on screen.

Fritz Lang’s M functions as a touchstone work for many films and genres that have come after it. M set many tropes and precedents for the devices and structures of psychological thrillers, police procedurals, heist films, serial killer films, and more. The film follows the dual efforts of both the police and the criminal underground of a German city in their search to find a killer of children. After the most recent abduction and murder of a young girl, the police intensify their attempts to find the perpetrator of these crimes, cracking down on the criminals and staging nightly raids of bars and local hangouts. This interruption of business, naturally, upsets the leaders of the various criminal groups of the underworld who convene and decide to work together to apprehend the killer and try him by their own kangaroo court to end their police pressure weighing on their operations. The high ranking officers hold a similar meeting and though their respective methodologies differ, the police contrive their own plan to find and try the killer.

Lang’s script and direction here work well to illuminate the similarities between both groups, despite the legal divide between them. Where the police organize a search utilizing the records of various mental hospitals and asylums to determine who has recently been released, obtaining and employ data to aid in their search, the criminal network employs the beggars to canvas the city, mile by mile. By organizing a system of watchdogs, composed of the socially unseen and invisible lower class, the criminals are able to establish a presence on the street that dwarfs that of the police, who are bogged down by the very bureaucracy that they employ in their attempt to find potential suspects. Lang fills both rooms in which these meetings take place with heavy smoke, the criminals are well-dressed and organized, polite and thoughtful about their methodology. There is precious little that distinguishes one group from the other, visually.

Meanwhile, the viewer is introduced to Hans Beckert, Peter Lorre, the killer. He is often shown reflected in windows and mirrors, examining his own round and genial face, looking at his expression as he is described in voice-over by the police. The police description seems at odds with Beckert’s round and ostensibly child-like face at first, before the viewer watches him navigating the street, catching sight of a young girl in a shop window. His face instinctively contorts into a strange vision of desire and loathing, he seems to become possessed by something other and alien to both his previous demeanor and general humanity. Here he begins to whistle Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt, which accompanied his abduction of the young girl to start the film. Lang employs this leitmotif in what became a highly influential gesture, marrying the Beckert character to this whistled piece of music. When the theme is whistled, the viewer is alerted to Beckert’s presence and the potential of his perverse activity.

Before Beckert can abscond with another victim, his whistling is recognized by a blind balloon salesman on the street and the criminal’s plan to track him is put into action. He is unknowingly branded with chalk by a young man and followed through the streets before becoming wise to his tail and hiding out in an office building. Hiding in the attic, Beckert is sought out by the collective criminal body who tear apart the building, finding him only moments before the police arrive on the scene. Inspector Lohmann, Otto Wernicke, tricks a remaining criminal into telling him the group’s true target, Beckert, and their plans and destination. In the meantime, Beckert is brought before a group of criminals in a kangaroo court, given a defense lawyer, and tried by the head of the criminal syndicate, Schränker, Gustaf Gründgens. Beckert pleads his case, details the heavy weight of the guilt he feels, how he is compelled to kill by a voice inside of him and estranged from himself while he commits the acts, only learning of them later while he reads the paper. The mob demand that he is killed, despite the assertion of his “lawyer” that his compulsion voids him of responsibility, and, as such, that he should be remanded to the care of a mental institution for care, rather than killed. However, before mob rule prevails, the police arrive and the film ends with Beckert before a legal jury and the mothers of his victims who plead that this will not bring their children back. The mother of the last child implores that someone must better watch the children, the plea made in darkness, explicitly extending to the viewer of the film.

The even-handedness of Lang’s film makes it a success on its own merits. M cleverly posits parallels between the legal and extra-legal agencies within cities that resonate to this day in works such as The Wire and challenges the morality of mob rule and eye-for-an-eye justice in the face of one of the most terrible crimes that one can commit. Lang shoots the film with a sharp eye, employing negative space and the absence of human presence, in stairwells and around dinner tables, to emphasize the loss experienced by the mothers. He employs reflection and shadow to enhance the sense of illusion and the constructed facade of normalcy utilized by his killer. He builds tension through his visuals and use of the leitmotif, heightening this by cutting between both parties in search of Beckert. Were this all the film were up to, it would nonetheless be a resounding success.

The rub here, however, is the context. Filmed in pre-Nazi German, the film’s harsh depiction of mob rule and the public susceptibility to manipulation by propaganda, its imploring of the viewer to care for the children, to exercise reason in the face of judgment for that which is beyond one’s control, all seem to resonate with a strange sensitivity to world events that would unfold under Hitler. Lang’s wariness of the Nazi party is well documented, and more apparent in his The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, which M seems to prefigure in ways. These elements add the weight of historical eminence to an already considerable film wherein humanity is at once the source of all increments of evil and also that by which all are leveled.

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