: Fritz Lang’s Dark Masterpiece, Still Shocking After All These Years (also known as M – Mörder unter uns (Germany) Murderers Among Us(working title)
M is for murder. It is as the mark of Cain, a commentary etched into the dehumanised soul of our society, M in the context of the movie holds a visual clue: it is tagged by an informer who is in the guise of a blind. He also serves as the front for the underworld.
The letter M is the same in its mirror image: society as we get to see in everyday world and shown to be something decent and morally uplifting holds a mirror image, the darker face of the underworld. In Fritz Lang’s bleak vision of humanity dog eats dog. period. Elsewhere we see superimposed shots of police and the underworld planning a concerted manhunt with the city map opened out in front. Each has his own self interest and imperative that doesnot necessarily mean murder most foul must be eradicated from their midst. Oh no in the hall of mirrors no one is completely untouched by evil. The police have their own interests to protect as the underworld have theirs.
Now I shall outline the plot that is simple enough.
In an unnamed city (the story was based on a case in Duesseldorf, but many critics place the setting in Berlin, where “M” was filmed), a child murderer is stalking the streets. The Police search is so intense, it is disturbing the ‘normal’ criminals, and the local hoods decide to help find the murderer as quickly as possible.
A psychotic child murderer stalks a city, and despite an exhaustive investigation fueled by public hysteria and outcry, the police have been unable to find him. But the police crackdown does have one side-affect, it makes it very inconvenient for the organized criminal underground to operate. So they decide that the only way to get the police off their backs is to catch the murderer themselves. The film is constructed as a double manhunt.
‘Peter Lorre’s sweaty, puffy, froggy-eyed portrayal of a child murderer remains one of the most frightening images in screen history. All moist flesh and grubby, fat little fingers, infantile and pathetic yet truly monstrous at once, Lorre’s character is one of the great monuments to the true squalor of evil. He is not banal in the least, but neither is he dramatic: He’s a little worm with an unspeakable obsession, insane and yet a horrible reflection of the society that created him.
In a brilliant early montage Lang shows us the young Elsie being suavely picked up by her shadowy killer, led along streets and into the woods. There’s no on-screen violence, of course, but the sense of menace is unbearably intense, particularly as Lang signifies the murderer’s dementia in musical terms, having him whistle a selection from “Peer Gynt” as the demon’s grip on his soul grows more fierce. Lang polishes off the sequence with two horrifying images: Elsie’s ball bouncing across the grass, losing energy, and reaching stasis; and Elsie’s balloon caught (as if in torment) in the suspended telephone wires.’
… The cops, under great pressure, mount a massive manhunt; they attack the only target they have, which is the underworld — these guys are so well organized, they even have a stolen-sandwich ring! — and so the crooks respond by attempting on their own to find the killer.
In allegorical terms, Lang seemed to be getting at the escalating conflict between the increasingly inept Weimar Republic and the increasingly efficient underground Nazi Party, and the underworld, being more merciless and better organized, is able to uncover the villain before police.
But even when Lang documents the final apprehension (in a brilliantly edited and timed sequence where the cops are racing to a building that the gangsters have all but commandeered as they search it), he has a surprise. That is the ironic trial of which the clammy little human mushroom, where at last he speaks for himself, declares his own insanity and the pain it’s caused him and asks them who they are to judge — interesting questions to be asked in the Germany of 1931.
But the movie is, perhaps, just as interesting as a piece of film design as it is as a piece of narrative. It was the domestic high-water mark of German expressionist filmmakers, who were about to be dispersed around the world by the rise of those same Nazis, who would gain power in 1933.
German expressionism, which may have gotten to its strangest moment in 1919’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” was essentially a visual version of a treacherous universe. It was spread by this diaspora of fleeing German genius (including Lang, who went on to have a distinguished American career) and came to light in the works of Hitchcock and Welles but perhaps most notably in that movie genre known as film noir, which dominated the American screen in the late ’40s.
(ack: Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post published: April 22, 1998)
Germany( The Nazis banned this movie in July1934-1945), Black and White, 117 min / 110 min (2004 Criterion DVD edition)
Hans Beckert: I can’t help what I do! I can’t help it, I can’t…
Criminal: The old story! We never can help it in court!
Hans Beckert: What do you know about it? Who are you anyway? Who are you? Criminals? Are you proud of yourselves? Proud of breaking safes or cheating at cards? Things you could just as well keep your fingers off. You wouldn’t need to do all that if you’d learn a proper trade or if you’d work. If you weren’t a bunch of lazy bastards. But I… I can’t help myself! I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me, the fire, the voices, the torment!
Schraenker: Do you mean to say that you have to murder?
Hans Beckert: It’s there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently, but I can feel it there. It’s me, pursuing myself! I want to escape, to escape from myself! But it’s impossible. I can’t escape, I have to obey it. I have to run, run… endless streets. I want to escape, to get away! And I’m pursued by ghosts. Ghosts of mothers and of those children… they never leave me. They are always there… always, always, always!, except when I do it, when I… Then I can’t remember anything. And afterwards I see those posters and read what I’ve done, and read, and read… did I do that? But I can’t remember anything about it! But who will believe me? Who knows what it’s like to be me? How I’m forced to act… how I must, must… don’t want to, must! Don’t want to, but must! And then a voice screams! I can’t bear to hear it! I can’t go on! I can’t… I can’t…
Pickpocket with 6 Watches: There are more police on the street tonight than whores.
Children: [singing] Just you wait, it won’t be long. The man in black will soon be here. With his cleaver’s blade so true. He’ll make mincemeat out of YOU!
[to union member asleep next to him]
Beggar’s Union Member: Stop snoring! You’ll wake up the lice.
Frau Beckmann: Elsie?… Elsie?… ELSIE!
Hans Beckert: That is a nice ball you have.
Franz, the burglar: [Franz is being tricked into thinking he killed the night watchman, and is going to jail for it] Please, Herr Kommissar! I’ll tell you everything; even who we were looking for in that damned building.
Inspector Groeber: Really. Who?
Franz, the burglar: The child murderer, Herr Kommissar!
Woman in Crowd: Shoot him like a mad dog!
Man in Pub: Hey, it’s fatty Lohmann!
Everyone in Pub: [Chanting] Lohmann, Lohmann, Lohmann!
Elisabeth Winkler, Beckert’s landlady: Could you speak louder please, I’m a bit hard of hearing.
Policeman: As if I couldn’t tell.
Inspector Karl Lohmann: Good God! The window sill!
Peter Lorre… Hans Beckert
Ellen Widmann … Frau Beckmann
Inge Landgut … Elsie Beckmann
Otto Wernicke … Inspector Karl Lohmann
Theodor Loos … Inspector Groeber
Gustaf Gründgens … Schränker
Friedrich Gnaß … Franz, the burglar
Fritz Odemar … The cheater
Paul Kemp … Pickpocket with six watches
Theo Lingen … Bauernfänger
Rudolf Blümner … Beckert’s defender
Georg John … Blind panhandler
Franz Stein … Minister
Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur … Police chief
Gerhard Bienert … Criminal secretary