The world’s a pretty objectively terrible place right now, isn’t it? All manner of chaos and ignorance is getting thrown at us at a never-ending pace, taxing anyone who feels the responsibility to keep abreast with that’s happening. But, it’s always nice to take a nice break and finally check out a movie that’s been on your watchlist for quite a while. You know, a nice relaxing epic about a serial killer murdering children, drenched with the dread of the upcoming Nazi regime. Escapism! All snark aside, when my random number generator spat out the film I’ll be discussing today, I was a tad conflicted. On the one hand, I was kind of hoping for something a tad more lighthearted than Fritz Lang’s M. But, on the other hand, M is a movie that I’ve wanted to check out for quite some time, and just never got around to. So, the one-two punch of the list telling me I had to finally watch it along with the ease of seeing it on the new HBO app made me swallow any sort of discomfort with checking out a movie like this in a time like this. And, while I certainly won’t say that I found myself feeling more positive about the state of the world or the human condition after seeing M, I am glad that I finally crossed it off my list. I’ve been a fan of Fritz Lang, at least what I’ve seen of his work, for a while now. I mean, anyone who has given themselves over to Metropolis is probably going to hold the man’s work in pretty high esteem. And the Big Heat certainly doesn’t hurt that any either. But, for one reason or another, I’d just never gotten around to M, despite hearing stellar things. As a weirdo who was obsessed with true crime and serial killers, while also being a movie nerd, it kind of feels weird that I’m only checking this movie out now. But, it’s better late than never, because M really is a fascinating and chilling movie, even almost one hundred years after it was released.
Fritz Lang was a rather towering figure in the world of German cinema by 1931, having established himself as one of the preeminent film-makers working, especially in the whole German Expressionist style. So, a new Fritz Lang movie was always going to be something people were interested in. But, when Lang announced that his next project would be called “Murderer Among Us,” he drew some flak almost immediately from the rising Nazi party in Germany which just assumed that the film would be insulting towards them. Which, you know, if you hear someone talk about murderers and just immediately assume that they’re talking about you, probably is a red flag. But, after clearing things up with the Nazi leadership, Lang was allowed to begin production on what would be his first film with sound, dropping the title to just call the film M. It would be the story of a child-killer, and to accomplish this feat of storytelling Lang ended up interviewing several actual killers held in mental institutions, many of whose stories were more or less blended together to create his own killer, while it seems like the exploits of Peter Kurten, the Vampire of Dsseldorf, were the largest inspirations. Lang worked to instill as much real-life horror as he could into the film, while keeping any sort of violence to a minimum, preferring to let the audience imagine what happened. And, these techniques combined with Lang’s innovations with sound, manages to make M a marvel for its time. And, it was generally well-received at the time. However, while making this film and his next film, Lang finally realized that it was high-time for him to get out of Germany, and like so many European films from this era, the terror of the Nazis led to the film almost getting destroyed. It has survived in many different lengths and cuts, but has eventually become as complete as it can possibly be, becoming one of the singular films of German cinema, and one of Fritz Lang’s most haunting works.
The film largely tells the story of Hans Beckert, a serial killer who exclusively murders little girls, living in Berlin. But, the film is more about the effect that Beckert has on the city, and less about the man himself. Because, as we see from the first frames of the movie, the children of Berlin are aware of children going missing, as are the parents, but no one seems to be taking it that seriously. That is until a little girl named Elsie Beckmann is killed after meeting Beckert on the road after school. Beckert charms her, and buys a her a balloon from a blind merchant, only to lure her away somewhere where he could stab and kill her. And, it’s Elsie’s murder that kicks things into overdrive, causing people to begin demanding that something be done about the murders. It also doesn’t help that Beckert starts sending taunting letters to the police. But, it’s though those letters that the police are able to use new methods of handwriting analysis and fingerprinting to begin building their hunt for the killer. The police begin searching for Beckert non-stop, while a famous detective named Karl Lohmann is brought in to help. But, Lohmann primarily just has them search for escaped mental patients, and they just aren’t able to get any results. So, Lohmann changes tactics, and has his cops begin raiding various criminal fronts, assuming that the murderer must be a member of the criminal organizations in Berlin.
Which really starts to bother the leading criminals of the city. They’re offended that they’re being lumped in with this killer, and a summit is held by a man known as the Safecracker. He announces that the various criminals of Berlin were now going to work together to track down the killer, and bring him to justice to clear their names, and let things cool down enough for them to get back to work. So, they begin pounding the pavement while the police manage to locate an apartment that Beckert rented, getting further along his trail. But neither group are able to find Beckert until he makes his next move. Because, after Beckert finds another girl suitable to kill, he makes the mistake of taking her to the same blind salesman from earlier, and begins whistling the same tune he had before he killed Elsie. The blind man realizes that this must be the killer, and manages to get a fellow beggar to help mark the man. The other man chases Beckert, and ends up rubbing a piece of chalk in his palm, making the letter “M”, which he hits against Beckert’s back, marking the man as the killer. A group of beggars then begin following Beckert, until he finally realizes something is wrong. He abandons his potential victim, and flees into the night, finding refuge in an office building that he manages to break into. But, the beggars have him trapped, and end up putting a call into the Safecracker, summoning his group of criminals to come and get Beckert.
The Safecracker and his men then arrive at the office building, taking things over from the beggars. They beat some of the night-watchmen assigned to patrol the building, and begin taking the place apart, searching for Beckert. It takes a while, but they’re eventually able to find the man, and get ready to take him away, when one of the watchmen manages to trigger a silent alarm. The police flee with their captive, but one of their ranks is captured by the police. The police aren’t sure what to make of this strange robbery, until Lohmann manages to trick the man into admitting that they have captured the killer. Meanwhile, the Safecracker has brought Beckert to a distillery where the whole criminal underworld is present for a farcical trial. Beckert is given a chance to plead his case, and he begins trying to get the criminals to realize that he has some sort of insane compulsion to kill these girls, and that he’s not an evil man. He tries to get them to see that this isn’t his choice, and that they can’t kill an insane man. But, the criminals, many of whom have killed people themselves, don’t really listen to the plea, and get ready to execute Beckert for his crimes, feeling that they will deliver more thoroughly than the police ever will. But, at that moment the police raid the distillery, and manage to arrest Beckert, putting him on a real trial. And, as Beckert prepares to be sentenced by the law, we see the mothers of the slain girls looking on in horror, begging people to watch their children in the face of evil.
I had heard about M for years. It’s kind of hard not to have learned about it if you’re a fan of movies or have an interest in the world of serial killers. But, I really didn’t know much at all about it. I knew Peter Lorre was in it, and that it had to do with a killer. And, that was really it. So, you can imagine my surprise when it turned out that this movie is less about a serial killer, and more about the criminals of Berlin getting together to track down and capture a serial killer because they know the police aren’t competent enough to actually do it and are just using the hunt as an excuse to put the screws to people. Which, is a really great idea. I mean, during times like these I’m always up to more movies that portray police to be incompetent idiots, because we need more reflections of reality in our media. But, beyond that it’s just a really interesting way to handle a story like this, and one that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Plus, it’s just a terrific film to boot. Especially when placed in a historical point of view. I always find it fascinating to see directors who got their start in the Silent era make their first transition to sound, and Lang really goes for it in this movie, using all sorts of then-innovative techniques, and even having a major plot-point revolve around the way the Beckert whistles a specific tune. It’s a gorgeously shot film, trading in the excessive grandeur of something like Metropolis for the grimy reality of Weimar Germany, managing to draw you into the ugly reality of the film remarkably well. That’s also helped along by the stunning performance that Peter Lorre puts in. I honestly don’t have that much experience with Lorre, especially with this German roles, and primarily know him from the fact that he was kind of short-hand for “creepy guy” in Looney Tunes cartoons. But, he really puts in an amazing performance in this film, and you kind of get why he became the poster-child for creeps, playing Beckert with a sort of pathetic malevolence that really felt years ahead of its time.
And, it’s not just his performance that feels like it’s from another time. This whole movie was kind of fascinating, especially with knowledge of both the serial killer as a concept, and specifically the “serial killer movie.” Obviously, the term serial killer hadn’t even been invented by the time that this film was made, but Lang used quite a bit of real-world horror from various killers who would certainly deserve the identifier if it had existed at the time. But, beyond that, we also have Beckert give an impassioned and repugnant speech about how killing is a compulsion, something he can’t control, something I really didn’t think was talked about in the 1930’s. It plays around with some cutting edge detective work, even if things like handwriting analysis was proven to be bunk, and it really just kind of feels like someone with a modern understanding of serial killers and the way they’re hunted was sent back in time to write this film. But, beyond all of that, it’s just shocking how this film lays the groundwork for what would become the serial killer film. You can definitely fell the influence of this film in things like Silence of the Lambs or Zodiac, and it really does feel like this movie helped forged a template for a type of movie that wouldn’t even have a name for decades to come. But, whereas most modern serial killer flicks are tales about brave police officers fighting against pure evil, this one instead is about a bunch of criminals who get personally offended that they’re being lumped in with pure evil, and want to show that they’re more skilled at hunting out people who don’t belong than the people who make a living doing so. Which, is just a wonderful little twist.
M was written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, directed by Fritz Lang, and released by Vereingte Star-FIlm GmbH, 1931.
Categories: The Bucket LIst