Directed by Fritz Lang
Starring Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut
Produced by Nero-Film AG
As a parent, there is no end of stuff that freaks me out. Every day is a constant stream of thoughts like: “Did I forget to sign him up for basketball?” and “What are they serving at snack time to my son with the peanut allergy?”
Of course, the biggest constant fear is that something horrible will happen to them. Something so horrible, parents usually won’t describe it. Because to say it out loud, is to acknowledge that there are people in this world who will engage in the cruelest behavior possible: snuffing out the life of a young innocent.
M is about such a person. When we meet Hans Beckert for the first time, we only see his silhouette cast upon the poster announcing the reward for the capture of a serial killer of children. He entreats young Elsie Beckmann with a balloon and the two are soon walking hand-in-hand.
We also see Elsie’s mother’s growing concern as she stares at the clock, busies herself around the house to try to take her mind off her tardy daughter, until she cannot take it anymore, and must open the window and scream for her daughter.
The moment closes with amongst the most haunting images I have ever seen placed into film. A close-up of Elsie’s ball rolling to a stop in a vacant field, followed by the image of the balloon Elsie had just been given tangled briefly in some power lines before blowing away.
What’s fascinating to me is that Lang takes that moment and turns it into a mirror against which society in Berlin is to be judged. M is never actually about this serial killer; it’s about what he does to this city.
Without ever showing us what his Berlin is like before the murderer’s atrocities, Lang tells us everything we need to know. It’s structured. The police investigate crimes using tried and trued methodologies. The children travel to and from school without care. And the criminals have their own hierarchy with divisions and structure to carry out their illicit, but lucrative actions in the most efficient way possible.
Berlin is all about its structures. There is a comfort to how even the criminals are organized. Lang shows us these structures everywhere. There is a geometry of squares and circles in almost every shot of the film. And the film ultimately introduces Beckert not simply as a random murderer, but as a monkeywrench thrown into the machinery of the city’s very functioning.
The police at first are clueless how to respond. They put up posters and round up the usual suspects (to borrow a phrase from another classic). When they finally turn to profiling and more “modern” crime detection techniques, it’s foreign to these law enforcers. After all, the killer must be one of the known criminal underground, right?
For its part, the well-organized bad guys are seeing the increased activity by the police as a significant disruption to their operations. How can they gamble and steal if their places are constantly being raided? The criminals themselves come up with their own plan: to protect the children and catch the murderer themselves.
What follows is dueling investigative procedurals. In one camp, you have the police profiling recent parolees and visiting their homes to search for clues that may lead to the killer by using a letter he sent to the police and the newspapers. In the other, the criminals use beggars to track the city’s children and report suspicious activities.
Both efforts ultimately prove successful, so it becomes a race to see who will get Beckert first. The criminals ultimately win out. They see him take another little girl and one of the beggars places a chalk “M” on the back of Beckert’s jacket, leading to the film’s signature chase through the streets of Berlin. They track him to an office building and wait until the end of the workday when everyone leaves.
When the criminals are sure he has not left, they break into the building to search for and find the murderer. Just as they discover Beckert’s hiding place, one of the building’s watchman triggers an alarm, alerting the police. The posse hightails it out, but one of their number is captured by the police.
Beckert is taken to an old distillery where an impromptu kangaroo court is set up to try the killer. He even gets his own defense “counsel,” but clearly the criminals want to see Hans executed.
I have not really described Beckert much to this point and that’s because to this point he’s been an object. All we know is he has committed unspeakable acts and is being hunted. At the court, we finally get to meet him. And he’s pathetic. He has urges he tries to fight but cannot. He blacks out when killing the children. He begs for his life. He’s not the monster you’d envision.
He and his counsel even turn the tables back on the criminals, pointing out that his unspeakable crimes are the result of an uncontrolled sickness, while his judges kill, steal and grift as their living. The appeal doesn’t matter. A blind balloon salesman identifies the killer by the tune he whistles and the assembled jury prepares to carry out sentencing. Then suddenly, they freeze, drop their weapons and slowly raise their hands.
The police have gotten the location of the distillery from the man they captured at the office building and arrive to make the save. It’s the conclusion of the tale and really messes with the audience’s head. On the one hand, you want Beckert dead. He deserves to die and his sickness just means he will likely kill again.
On the other hand of course is the question of what justice means. Should Beckert be gunned down by other criminals in a distillery? Or should he get his day in court?
Noticeably absent throughout much of the film are the women. Elsie’s mom is there in the beginning and there are a couple of women at the kangaroo court. But Elsie’s mom receives the final word of the film. She points out that nothing will bring her daughter back. She reminds us that a fundamental purpose of society should be to protect the children and that no one is excused from that responsibility.
I’m a parent. M makes me want to hold my children a little tighter. It also makes me hope that as my children gain independence and venture out into the world, that it’s a world that is up to the admonition of Elsie’s mother.