Evening news harks the same catastrophes and human atrocities night after night. Terrorism, racial hatred, political corruption, and murder. Instantaneous internet uploads of brutal images on a twenty four seven basis has led to nothing but a melancholy cacophony. But when a killer is loose, especially one who’s modus operandi is child victims, the world holds its breath.
In 1931, Fritz Lang delved in to this vacuum and explored the capabilities and reactions of a city without oxygen, desperately struggling for fresh air in the suffocation of hysteria. What resulted is one of cinema’s most unflinching, unsettling and uncompromising masterpieces modestly titled M.
The streets of Berlin are in crisis as a killer, with a string of unfortunates to his name, stalks the shadows, enticing victims with treats and gifts before revealing his horrific inner beast. For children oblivious to the danger, he is a bogeyman to sing of during games, for parents, he is a tangible fear.
Initially, the eponymous M remains a silhouette slipping across posters detailing his vicious crimes, but his identity is quickly revealed in portrait as Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) morphs his face grotesquely, as Roger Ebert suggested, ‘to see in himself the monster others see in him’. Peter Lorre, a then relative unknown and comedy centred actor, was wide eyed, clean shaven, and baby faced. Hardly the visage of evil.
For Berlin, Beckert is the unseen ‘monster’ of their nightmare. But as a viewer, we can plainly see Beckert is a blank slate who inhabits a world of degenerate caricatures, any one of them a more likely suspect. Lang jettisons the classic mustachio villain of vaudevillian wickedness because it is essential to his thesis: What is man capable of? And not just Beckert’s capabilities. This is not a who dunnit but a why.
The omniscient eye watches in horror as a community eats itself alive; friends accusing friends, an innocent interaction with a young girl leading a man to be swarmed by a mob, a pickpocket nearly torn to pieces, and police searching homes at any inclination. Lang’s microscope examines the tiny sparks which ignite social unease, and the instantaneous switch from concerned citizen to frenzied animals.
In a haze of malleable morality, Lang weaves perceptive sequences. In one instance, top police officers gather in a lavish office, whilst across town a syndicate of thieves hold a meeting. Both discuss what is to be done with this killer. The thieves wish to catch the killer to continue their misdeeds in peace from scrutiny, an act of goodness to propagate evil. The police discuss harsher methods of detection, a short term evil for an ultimate good. In many scenes, the only clear division between police and thieves is a uniform.
For Beckert, Lang discovers a dangerous and courageous understanding of what would be deemed a villain in any other filmmaker’s eyes. To create an ambiguity, another shade of grey, in a confessed child killer is a triumph few can boast. In a courtroom of thieves, Lang creates his ultimate cosmic joke, parallel and paradox. Before an audience who hold a combined jail sentence of a thousand years, Beckert must defend his actions.
Beckert breaks down in a frantic explanation of his compulsion, his madness as terrifying and tormenting to him as the mothers he has robbed. The judges of the thieve’s courtroom chose an immoral life and form a court only as a means to eventually return to their wicked ways. Between the two there is little difference in results, but tremendous difference in motive. I am reminded of a quote from Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho ‘Is evil something you are? Or something that you do?’.
At the time of production, the melancholy tales of Peter Kurten, dubbed the Vampire Of Dusseldorf, shocked Germany. Lang and his wife Thea Von Harbour absorbed these headlines and settled on exploring not only the perpetrator, but the society in which the actions shocked. Lang researched inexhaustibly by interviewing murderers and sex offenders in asylums, studying cases in police records, and visiting murder scenes. Though Beckert was no singular incarnation, he was a melting pot of a killer psychology.
But the brooding atmosphere and subject matter may hold more than just murder cases of the time. 1931 witnessed the rapid expansion and might of the Nazi party which would take the reins of Germany in a few short years. Lang, who was half Jewish, was horrified as persecution flourished and was struck by betrayal as his wife joined the party. The atmosphere of an evil entity turning once peaceful citizens against one another, the brutality and ease at which good people became mindless evil drones, is perhaps the true heart of M.
Therefore Lang’s Berlin is not a glitzy cabaret of clubs and affluent society, it is Berlin filmed through a glass darkly, seeking smoke choked hotels, putrid kitchens and filthy bars. It is a totally immersive world of photographic mastery, a top quality noir style soon to swarm Hollywood in an exodus of foreign talent, but also groundbreaking in sound creativeness.
Narration stitched huge sequences of deep information together effortlessly, sounds emanating off camera enlarged Lang’s playground, and juxtaposition of absolute silence to sudden sound, originally used to cut costs, held an eerie quality Lang exploited. This is most chilling when Beckert’s Leit Motif cuts through silence.
A device originally used in opera, a Leit Motif is a sound or melody associated with a character. Forty years before Jaws’ two tone heart stopping heart beat, Edvard Grieg’s Hall Of The Mountain King quickened pulses. This is no idle choice, hardly a more fitting melody could be chosen to deliver an insight into the passionately vile intricacies of Beckert’s mind. Beckert’s perpetual motion from spotting a lonely child up until the unspeakable act is reflected in the ever increasing tempo of the melody culminating into a crashing finale.
This classic melody further captures the inexorable horror of M as a total picture. Still today one of the most dangerous films in cinematic history. Dangerous not for violence, but for its unrelenting challenging of morality, eschewing a black and white, yin and yang, left and right, division for an ever increasing succession of grey. Within this monochromatic scale it is impossible to judge ourselves, let alone these complex unfortunates.
Lorre leads a little girl to her doom, enjoying window shopping on the way. ‘What’s on your shoulder?’ she asks innocently. Lorre checks and his eyes widen it utter horror – the mark of a murderer: M.