M (dir. Fritz Lang): an ordinary film with sharp social comment

Fritz Lang, “M” (1931)

During the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Germany played unfortunate host to some extremely vicious serial killers, one of whom, Peter Kürten, inspired this psychological thriller drama by Fritz Lang. Kürten terrorised the city of Düsseldorf with his hideous murders of men, women and children that sometimes included drinking their blood; he was convicted of nine murders and was executed for his crimes in 1931. The reality that was Kürten is considerably toned down in “M”: the serial killer Beckert, played by Peter Lorre, preys on young schoolgirls in the city of Berlin and most of his crimes have already occurred when the film opens and he is seen buying a balloon and sweets for his latest victim. The movie concentrates on the search for Beckert by both police and organised crime gangs: the police believe Beckert is hiding among underworld criminals and put pressure on them to yield him; the criminals, feeling the heat and concerned for their reputation(!), try to find him and mete out their own justice.

The film does drag out during the search for Beckert who is captured by the criminals about 80 minutes into the movie: the pace is slow and leisurely and there’s no sense of rising tension as Beckert becomes aware of the pursuit and hides in an abandoned office building with both police and crooks on his trail. At least viewers can see how police in the 1920’s conducted their investigations into serial murders: finger-printing was still a new science then and forensic methods based on the use of DNA were in another universe altogether; all the police could do in those days was comb through known criminal networks and perhaps find out from psychiatric hospitals or prisons if they had released anyone or reported any escapes before the killings began. Naturally the police search is hardly scientific; indeed, it’s not even well co-ordinated as two police officers argue and fight over the case, and the inspector himself is sloppy in the way he oversees it. The criminals are faster and more efficient if more violent and thuggish in the way they find Beckert and promptly haul him before a kangaroo court baying for his blood.

Visually the film is a treat: the influence of 1920’s German Expressionism is strong in the use of shadows to suggest menace and suspense, and in one bizarre shot of the inspector talking on the telephone that forces audiences to look up his trouser legs at his face! There is one very good montage sequence of scenes in the disused office building where the criminals have rampaged looking for Beckert, with a voice-over of a police officer exclaiming at the destruction left behind. Another excellent montage sequence indirectly shows a victim’s assault: the montages show the empty place at a dining-table and a play area where the victim should have been had Beckert not attacked her. The mood throughout the film as suggested by the images is one of paranoia as Berlin is gripped in fear by the vicious murders and the police resort to intrusive searches through flop-houses and other places where underworld elements and society’s various down-and-outs and other outsiders frequent.

The film picks up during the mock trial scene in which Beckert confesses his guilt and admits to deep, primal instincts that drive him to kill even as he is revolted by them. Lorre delivers an incredible if hysterical and screechy performance of a man compelled by an inner sickness to carry out gruesome acts. Beckert is not entirely insane; he is lucid enough to remind his accusers that they exercise free will in carrying out their crimes while he is beholden to forces he can’t understand or fight.  His “defence lawyer” pleads on his behalf, arguing that Beckert can’t be held fully responsible for his crimes on the basis of his psychology. The mob, swept up in its hysteria and triumph at capturing Beckert, and not at all pleased at being told the plain truth about itself, proclaims the death sentence on him and prepares to carry it out. Astonishingly, viewers will find themselves in sympathy with Beckert, creepy and abhorrent he might be, having to face the fury of an emotional crowd locked in groupthink. Lorre’s acting virtually carries “M” from just another so-so cat-and-mouse chase to a movie that’s worth watching: there can’t be very many other films made since motion pictures began whose reputations rely so much on one actor’s performance in one scene. Unfortunately Lorre’s role as Beckert was to typecast the actor permanently as a sinister or creepy villain for the rest of his career.

As cinema, “M” doesn’t rate well in telling its story: the plot is self-explanatory yet surprisingly threadbare and so for most of its running time, the movie lacks direction, tension and pace. As a medium for social comment, the film makes pointed barbs about how the less privileged strata of society are targeted by the police for investigation and punishment whenever something out of the ordinary occurs, and how easy it is for the rights of individuals to be crushed totally, whether by institutions of law and order or by vigilante groups, especially in situations they can take advantage of and benefit from. The society as portrayed in “M” is one easily swayed by emotional frenzy and irrationality in a context of chronic stress, insecurity and fear for the future, and as a result is a society whose sympathies could be exploited and directed by an individual, an organisation and an ideology for more murderous gain than even Beckert and his demons can achieve. The parallels with the situation in the United States after the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001 are not at all hard to see.

Not long after making “M”, both director Lang and lead actor Lorre fled Germany for Paris (Lang in 1934, Lorre in 1933) when the society so portrayed in the movie became reality.

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