There’s a recurring idea in fiction that sin is an indelible stain other people can see: Cain kills his brother, and God marks him for eternity. Bluebeard’s wife peeks into his murder room, and ends up with telltale spots of blood on her hands or clothes that won’t wash out. Lady MacBeth eternally scrubs her hands, trying to rub away the blood only she can see. And in Fritz Lang’s M, a serial killer walks the streets of Berlin unseen, until a pair of street beggars identify him and clap a chalked M for “murderer” on his back. The killer, unaware he’s been fingered, continues the delicate process of befriending his next child-victim, luring her with candy and kindness. But the mark of his crimes gives him away to his pursuers. The shadowy monster that terrified a city quickly becomes a single weak and frightened man, readily visible to anyone looking for the sign of his sin.
That comedown, from mythic demon to cringing, begging victim, reads strangely to modern American audiences, who often identify closely with their villains. (To be fair, those villains usually get the best style, the best swagger, and the best lines.) In modern mainstream films, the villains generally stay strong, compelling threats right up until their death or definitive defeat. Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou, his constant collaborator until their divorce, had something else in mind with M. To create a morality tale about the importance of looking after children, they started with the most heinous crime Lang could imagine—committed offscreen, to incite the audience’s imaginations to do their worst—and then punished it dramatically and thoroughly—but on an emotional level, rather than a physical one. There’s more to the story than scolding a criminal, and Lang drives the point home by approaching his story from several unusual angles.
Peter Lorre stars in his breakthrough role as Hans Beckert, a ghoulish little man who befriends and slaughters children in ways that are implied to be ghastly, though it’s hard to tell, since their bodies are never found. His serial-killing spree sets off a public panic, with mobs in the street ready to attack any man who even speaks to a child. The police department, under Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke, who played Lohmann again in Lang’s The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse two years later), cracks down on the underworld, cutting into the profits of the city’s criminal element.
So the criminals, led by a man called Schränker, or “Safecracker” (Gustaf Gründgens), decide to find the killer themselves. Ultimately, Hans is noticed by a blind beggar who recognizes his habit of whistling Grieg’s “In The Hall Of The Mountain King.” The criminals corner and capture Hans in a long and daring raid on a closed factory—a meticulously staged precursor for decades of heist films to come—then squirrel him away in a basement, to judge and execute him themselves.
The trial isn’t where M’s unusual take on crime and criminality begins. Lang embraces strange perspectives—visual, metaphorical, and narrative—from his opening shot, which looks down from a crane’s-eye view on children playing a grisly game inspired by the murderer. Over and over throughout M, he finds inventive ways to visually frame the action. He looks up into Lohmann’s sprawling belly and bulging crotch from a low angle under his desk. He peeks around corners with the hunters watching Hans. He watches Hans’ latest target in a shop-window reflection, while framing Hans’ haunted face in the same window. He peers down through a hole in the floor to find one of Hans’ pursuers, abandoned by his compatriots at the factory, or pitilessly watches Hans from high overhead as the criminals cut off his avenues of escape on an empty street. The whole film is a hunt for a murderer, and Lang’s voyeuristic camera is part of the hunt: The oddball angles make it impossible to forget where the camera is located, giving the sense that it isn’t an objective observer, so much as a spy constantly lurking, sneaking, and prying.
M was Lang’s first sound movie, and he uses sound in the film in equally innovative, thoughtful ways, to keep viewers off-kilter by approaching the narrative from unexpected angles. Hans’ signature whistling lets the audience (and the Beggars’ Guild) track his presence and his movements even when he’s offscreen. The chanting voices of the children in the opening scene signal that they’re still safe—until they’re replaced by Elsie Beckmann’s mother, calling her missing daughter, with her unanswered cries echoing down a spiraling stairwell. Hans is heard approaching the doomed Elsie before he’s ever seen. That poor abandoned burglar down his hole speaks from offscreen to his compatriots above, and Lang focuses on the absence of response to key viewers in to the cops patiently waiting for him above. Over and over, Lang puts the primary action of a shot in a place where, maddeningly, the audience can hear it and not see it, so again, they have to let their imaginations do their worst.
The startling moments come when he drops the sound almost entirely, because it’s such a conventional choice for the era: Stretches of M run with minimal sound, without the music or incidental background noises cinephiles have come to expect as bridges between shots. That’s how early sound films often sounded when no one was talking. But Lang uses sound so thoughtfully to establish moods, or story elements, that when he drops to near silence, it feels less like an artifact of the era, and more like a conscious decision to keep the movie hushed and breathless. It makes things all the more startling when Hans is on trial, screaming out the case for his innocence.
And that trial is particularly telling, as Lang switches between intimate, close-up shots of Hans wailing about his compulsions, and wide, panning, unsympathetic shots of the hundreds of criminals who’ve come to judge him. Lang denies he was much interested in injecting politics into his films before the Nazis came to power, but he was always interested in criminal worlds, police procedural, and decrying mob mentalities. And M takes a peculiar tack in empathizing with Hans as he cringes into that wall of stony faces, with Schränker at the center, sadistically enjoying rubbing Hans’ nose in his crimes. Hans’ accusers have a point in that he’s a public menace, but their bloodthirsty glee at being on the punishing side of the court for once curdles any sense of moral righteousness they might have.
And that’s because of Lang’s longstanding disdain for mobs, even mobs with a grain of justice on their side. It’s worth noting that while the police are a step or two behind Schränker’s men in finding Hans, Lohmann and his group aren’t incompetents; this isn’t a story about failed institutions, or official incompetence, or folk heroes who get the job done when the cops can’t. Careful detective work and a Hannibal-like skill at profiling lead the police to their target’s home, and the only reason Lohmann’s men don’t collar Hans is because Schränker gets to him a few hours earlier. One of the thrilling things about M is that all the significant characters are competent and cautious: Hans at evading notice or capture, even in an environment of heightened hysteria; Lohmann at manipulation and efficiency; Schränker at fearlessly mobilizing and motivating his men, even with the police breathing down his neck. It’s a high-stakes two-cats-and-a-mouse game, solely between skilled competitors.
Lang and von Harbou save their scorn for the public, who let their children wander freely even with a murderer on the loose, and react to the killer with disorganized, reactionary, rampant violence. In their way, they’re complicit in Hans’ crimes: They’re overzealous and erratic, forming an impromptu screaming lynch mob around one doddering old gentleman who answers when a kid asks what time it is, but indifferently ignoring Hans promenading in public with his latest prey. Where Lohmann and Schränker represent two forms of German ruthless efficiency—flawed, but respectable and dedicated to their causes—private citizens can’t stop shrieking uselessly at each other about the color of a victim’s hat.
And that becomes the strangest angle of Lang’s storytelling: As much as he vilifies Hans’ behavior, he doesn’t much care about how it ultimately resolves. He and von Harbou give Hans plenty of time to lay out his case, with the help of a surprisingly dedicated crook appointed as his defense attorney. The script is cryptic about Hans’ true nature: Does he write the letter to the police to boast, or because he wants to be stopped? Does he tell the criminals the truth about his compulsion, or is he just trying to dodge his rapidly approaching death? (It’s hard to tell from his behavior on the streets; he seems utterly collected when charming his victims, but on the brink of collapse when balked from murder, and on the brink of insanity when staring into a mirror, trying to ape a friendly smile.) Does it matter one way or the other, when the end result of his compulsions are so terrible? Lang isn’t interested in resolving the questions, and he ends the film abruptly, definitively, without revealing whether the police executed Hans, or institutionalized him as Schränker feared, or even released him for lack of evidence.
What he is interested in is exploring M’s world from unusual perspectives: From the point of view of a detective, pressured to catch a killer even if it means inducing mass public disorder and displeasure. From the point of view of a thief who sees other criminals as part of his corporation, with Hans as an outsider whose real crime is making trouble for the better-established crooks. From the point of view of a child who’s so innocent, she hands her would-be killer his knife when he drops it, and tries to brush the incriminating murderer’s mark off his back. From the point of view of a madman who thinks the fact that he doesn’t want to mutilate children somehow excuses him doing it over and over. From a God’s-eye view, looking down on Hans as he’s surrounded by enemies and his options narrow, or from a spy’s-eye view as Hans cringes in a hidden place, listening to his would-be captors smash their way through walls to get to him. M sometimes seems fractured, like it’s telling many stories at once. That’s because it is. Lang was more dedicated to covering all the angles than to diving deeply into one limiting vision at a time.
Keith and Scott continue the conversation over in the Forum, where they talk about M’s humor, architecture, moral relativism, and politics. And on Thursday, Keith wraps up with a look at Joseph Losey’s 1951 attempt to remake M for an American audience and other, later traces of M.