Watch it with us: Filmstruck
Fritz Lang’s 1931 proto-thriller M still feels fresh, eighty-plus years after its original release. It’s not exactly a lighthearted romp—one of its major contributions was to introduce the world to the concept of the serial killer, something that we had never seen on film and didn’t even have a name yet. (In fact, the German word for serial killer was coined in an article written about M some thirty years after its release.) Films about serial killers are old hat now, but Lang’s take on them is still uniquely humane and empathetic, rather than lurid and lascivious.
The film opens with a washerwoman anxiously waiting for her young daughter to come home. The killer, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), has already claimed several victims, and a reward is being offered for his capture. She’s worrying for good reason—her daughter Elsie has already been enticed by Beckert with a colorful balloon he buys from a blind vendor. After Elsie disappears, the police step up their efforts to identify and find Beckert, but they get some help from an unexpected quarter: the heads of organized crime in Berlin, who are so fed up with the frequent raids on their businesses that they decide to find the killer themselves. They enlist the help of the city’s homeless population, who can observe what’s going on without being noticed. Both police and criminals have some success at identifying Beckert—notably, the blind balloon vendor recognizes the tune Beckert was whistling when he kidnapped Elsie, and another homeless man secretly chalks a large white M on Beckert’s back so they can track him easily. Beckert is eventually captured, though not without a fight, and the criminals decide to hold a trial of their own rather than hand him over to the police.
In a speech during his “trial,” Beckert berates the petty criminals holding him captive, saying that unlike him, they could choose to go straight if they wanted to. He describes his compulsion to kill in terms that leave no doubt that he’s suffering from a severe mental illness. Beckert has more lines more in this scene than in the rest of the film put together. Before this, all we know of him is that he preys on young children and he can elude some wily pursuers if necessary. The film is not particularly interested in Beckert himself—what it cares about are the people being affected by his crimes. His victims are all children of working-class families, and everyone trying to track him down depends on his capture for their livelihood, in one way or another. These are the characters Lang develops and wants us to spend time with. The opening scene with the unnamed laundress waiting for her daughter is unbearably poignant—it brings this woman to life and gives meaning and depth to the loss she’s about to suffer.
The device of alternating between the police and the crime bosses in their respective searches for Beckert also feels shockingly modern. It reminded me of TV shows like The Wire, although the police and the crime bosses are usually working at cross purposes in shows like that. The scene in which the crime bosses divide up the city into districts and assign them to their cadre of homeless people shows how seriously they take their task; their methods are a little unorthodox, but they’re no less systematic or determined than the real police. Movies that humanize criminals have been familiar since at least the 1970s, but for Lang this was a bold choice. Perhaps the criminals are choosing to break the law where someone like Beckert feel compelled to do so; but they also use their connections and their resources to do something good for their city, even if it’s initially self-serving.
M never shies away from the pathos of any of its characters, even Beckert himself. 1931 was not a good year to be living in Berlin—Germany was in the midst of a crippling depression, and M has a strong sense of urban decay and malaise, of facilities falling into disrepair and resources being stretched far too thin. M looks at the effects of this decay on a micro level, all the way down to the grubby children jumping rope in the street. Beckert’s victims could not be more humble, but the outrage over their deaths literally brings the city together, uniting the police and the criminals in their efforts to find him. This might be the most hopeful thing about this very dark, very unsettling film: the idea that common outrage can bring together the most divided parts of the population.