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Wednesday, 6 January 2016

FRITZ LANG: 'M' (1931)

M (1931). After Fritz Lang’s bitter experience of tussling with Ufa over their attempt to force sound upon METROPOLIS, he made two more films SPIES and WOMAN IN THE MOON before temporarily retiring from the business, sickened by studio demands. (The latter film was intended to be an ending for METROPOLIS, allowing Freder and Maria to take a rocket to the moon together). He even considered becoming a chemist before an independent producer came trying to tempt him back into directing. Lang resisted for nine months till finally he agreed on condition that he would have total control over the budget, the casting, the final cut, every aspect – and these were the only terms that persuaded him out of retirement to make M.

For a story, Lang discussed with his wife Thea the limits of criminal depravity that they could get away with portraying on screen and settled for possibly the strongest taboo, a child-murderer. This was before the notorious real-life ‘Monster of Dusseldorf’ was caught in Germany around that time. By now Lang had spent a lot of research time with the police of Alexanderplatz district. In casting the killer, Lang unconsciously disproved the accepted theory of Lombroso’s that criminals all were the product of inherited bestial, primitive natures that manifested in physical defects such as sloping foreheads, heavy brows, abnormally long arms. The original title for M of ‘Murderer Among Us’ strengthened the terrifying normality of appearance that may hide these monsters from the easy detection Lombroso suggested. Lang searched for the most unlikely-looking actor and found Peter Lorre working in ‘Stegreif-Theater’, built around improvisation. Lang felt no-one would believe such a gentle unassuming person could commit the most awful of crimes so Lorre, who had never made a film before, was given the role.

Born in Hungary In 1904, Peter Lorre began life as László Löwenstein, eldest of five children to a textiles manager and a mother from whom he inherited his dark expressive eyes. She died from blood poisoning. He found his talent for acting at school. To satisfy his father’s concern for his future, the young László agreed to a day-job as a bank teller whilst pursuing becoming an actor at night, till his resulting exhaustion got him fired. His father eventually acceded to his son’s drive to follow his dream full-time. In 1925, László moved to Berlin and changed his name to Peter Lorre.
Berlin had a thriving arts scene at this time, drenched in Expressionism as we have seen and the teachings of Sigmund Freud. Lorre had already worked with a psycho-therapeutic theatre group inspired by Freud and once said that he thought a good actor should be in part a psychologist. He impressed esteemed playwright Bertold Brecht enough to be given a leading stage roles, prompting one critic to single him out as: ‘A new face…a terrifying face’.

Lorre’s growing fame as a theatre actor was almost cut short before he could establish himself when an operation (possibly an appendectomy) led to him being prescribed morphine, the use of which would sadly become a dependency for him.

M is a powerfully naturalistic crime procedural telling the story of a city in fear as its children are being murdered one by one by a mysterious killer. We see kids in the opening scene playing a game involving the chanting of a sinister nursery rhyme about the ‘man in black’. A mother, Mrs Beckmann shouts at them not to keep singing that ghoulish song. They ignore her. Our introduction to Hans Beckert the killer is a tease device of showing him in shadow talking to the mother’s little girl Elise. “What a pretty ball”, Lorre coos with disarming friendliness.

Lang shows great tact in focusing on the poor mother’s increasing panic as her daughter’s non-return grows later instead of any prurient hint at whatever hideous behaviour the killer indulges in with his victim. When we see her balloon rise up and bounce off the telegraph wires, our worst fears are realised by what we are not shown. The director also wisely chooses to concern the narrative almost exclusively with the effect on the community. M does not attempt to understand and sympathise with the sickness of a homicidal paedophile till the climax. Till then, we see how the strain of trying to keep a city’s children safe tears its citizens apart. Accusations damage friendships as paranoia takes hold and the community turns on itself.

While Inspector Lohmann and his police officers struggle to hold the public’s confidence, his men reduced to only twelve hours sleep a week, it is left to the underworld crime kingpins to take matters into their own hands at their weekly meeting. The most perceptive clue yet about the killer’s identity comes from one of its members (It takes one to know one?) who observes that for a murderer to still be at large after six years, he must be the kind of person “who wouldn’t hurt a fly”, someone who could easily seem nice enough to earn a child’s trust unnoticed. Beckert writes goading letters to the police, showing that he either has a compulsion to be caught or that he is in such control that he can afford to drop hints.

Eventually, Beckert is revealed by his distinctive whistling of ‘In the Hall of The Mountain King’ recognised by the blind man who sold his victim a balloon. He is chased into an office building whereupon a criminal gang seizes him before the cops come. They take Beckert to an abandoned distillery where in a highly-effective climax, a kangaroo court presides as judge and jury over him. They see themselves in a sense as a trying court of his peers though obviously none would confess to his type of terrible crime – “We are all law experts here” declaims the ‘judge’.  (Real criminals were used in the filming of this scene to add veracity). It is tense and dramatic, pitting the demands of the prosecution against the thrust of not only the luckless appointed ‘Defence Counsel’ but also the impassioned pleading of Lorre.

 Here, Lorre grabs our attention with what would become his trademark eye-popping, snivelling cowardice and a real actor’s skilful sensitivity in earning a measure of sympathy despite his awful character. The vigilante court want to execute him for fear that under Paragraph 51, he would be sectioned under a verdict of diminished responsibility and thus they would risk having him released into the city again. He attempts to counter their condemnation, appealing for mercy: “I can’t help myself. The fire, the voices, the torment!” This is Lang and co-writer Von Harbou’s only time of allowing his killer a chance to make the case for redemption, and to his credit it’s ambiguous rather than an opportunity for a liberal soapbox. Whilst Lorre fully commits his performance to the belief that he is out of control, I’m reminded of those killers who seem to miraculously find God or some other fast salvation conveniently when probation might be around the corner. Lang and Von Harbou equally give both sides time to state their case – a possible trump card being laid down after the Defence Counsel’s plea of sickness is when the mothers must have their say. “He does not have children,” one points out damningly. The quality of mercy perhaps droppeth less certainly when it is we who have been rained upon so tragically. 

Whatever the verdict would have been from this criminal court, we will never know as just then, the police turn up and everyone surrenders with hands up...

Despite Lang’s demand for final cut, his ending for M was cut from the finished version for its original release. We are fortunately able to see it reinstated. As the real court passes sentence on Beckert, the mother of the first child victim pleads that in future we must all watch our children better.


M is an excellent crime thriller that handles the ultimate taboo with restraint and taste, giving due weight to the corrosive effect of understandable terror on a city whilst enabling the murderer to be more of a three-dimensional human being than perhaps the former Expressionist cinema vogue would permit, yet never taking understanding for him into unjustified apology.

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