M (1931)

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A child predator, torments a Berlin neighborhood. The attacks on the helpless youth strikes fear and paranoia in the citizens. The death of young Elsie Beckmann causes the paranoia to skyrocket and further highlight the police inabilities to find the culprit. Police investigator, Karl Lohmann (Wernicke), decides to raid known hangouts of organized crime members. This disrupts the operations of the crime world and pushes the organized crime leader, Der Schränker (played by Gustaf Gründgens), to call a meeting of the division leaders. The organized criminals decide to take matters into their own hands and hunt down the murderer themselves.

The murderer, Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre), is identified when a blind beggar recognizes his whistle. When the search party made up of criminals finally catches up to the murderer, they put him on trial to determine his sentence. What should be a straight forward verdict is instead met with questions of control, responsibility, and torment.

Director Fritz Lang brings a terrifying story to life through its thrilling editing, story structure, authenticity, camera techniques, and creative use of the new sound technology. A true tour de force from the transitional period of filmmaking.

Subject Matter

Fritz Lang made incredible use of many novel film techniques and orchestrated a masterpiece. Several aspects of the film, M, help make it stand out among other films of its time. However, the most poignant is its subject matter. A child murderer at large, with hints to the acts being more heinous, is not a common plot point in many films. Pedicide is a controversial topic that does not typically make its way to the big screen, but Lang did so through an examination of society as a whole and of the justice and judicial system.

Who is the hero?

Another unusual characteristic of the storyline, besides a lead character that is a child murderer, is that there is no clear hero. The child molester, Hans Beckert, is clearly not the hero. However, an attempt is made at the climax of the film, to redeem him. The crime syndicate that inevitably catches Beckert, is also not the hero. They are made up of thieves and murderers whose intentions are driven more to stopping the intensified police interference in their operations than the actions of the murderer alone. One would assume that the Police are the heroes, yet they are mostly action-less in the pursuit of Beckert. Their motivations also appear to be more in saving face than in stopping Beckert at all costs.

Lang takes the ambiguity even further after the organized criminals apprehend Beckert. Beckert is brought to the secret hideout of the crime organization in order to be tried in their kangaroo court. In an effort to be fair, the thieves provide Beckert with his own defense attorney. Thus helping legitimaize their court proceedings. Both sides proceed to take turns stating their case. Again, it would seem clear and simple to condemn the child murderer and call it a day. However, Lang chose to have Beckert, played by Peter Lorre, defend his actions in what has become one of the greatest acting displays of the era.

Beckert’s testimony of his tortured mind begins to resonate with some of the spectators. They can understand his inability to control himself. This of course is not an excuse to let him go free, but a rationale to not condemn him to death. An alternative option could be to turn him over to the police and to medical professionals. At least, this is the case that his attorney makes in his defense.

The scene provides an added depth to the character of Beckert, but also to society as a whole. People are not one dimensional and there is always a story and rationale that get people to where they are in life. This plays in to what we do, how we interact with one another, and how we can end up with horrifying outcomes. Behind these criminal activities are people dealing with life and the solution is not always clear.

Peter Lorre and Sméagol/Gollum

The first thing that came to mind while watching the final scene by Lorre, was Gollum/Sméagol from Lord of the Rings. The internal struggle within Sméagol’s mind is much like the one in Beckert’s. Although, we get to see the two inner monologues play out in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I also wonder if some of the modeling around Gollum’s eyes and face was done with Lorre in Mind.

Jackson also incorporated an arc shot when Gollum and Sméagol begin to change places. This shot helps to highlight the internal transition within the character, similar to the transition seen in the telephone booth of Fight Club.

The ambiguity of the “hero” continues through the end of the film where there is still no definitive resolution. Beckert’s outcome is left a mystery. The viewer is left with a message that removes the blame from Beckert, the criminal syndicate, or the police. Elsie Beckmann’s mother leaves us with the line “this won’t bring back our children… We too, should keep a closer watch on our children”.

Trust, Power & Control

The main theme throughout M is how a lack of trust and security can erode a society. This stems from the lack of trust in the Police force and their difficulties in solving the crime. As well as the lack of trust between citizens as the identity of the killer remains unknown. The failure on the Police’s effort to solve the crime is inherent in their methods and limitations. They are unable to rely on witness testimony due to the intrinsic bias and memory deficiencies that make up an eye witness, again highlighting trust issues.

The clues that are left behind are generic, e.g. wrappers, balls, balloons. The only substantial evidence that they have is a letter written and mailed by the murderer. The acts themselves are random and linked only by the age of the victim. There is otherwise nothing else linking the victims or the method in which Beckert targets them.

The lack of progress by the police, in the eyes of the citizens, causes distrust that the police are trying as well as causes people to take matters into their own hands. People become vigilantes and begin to accuse their neighbors, apprehend suspicious people, ultimately further distract the police from being able to solve the case.

Solutions

These difficulties then lead to the next logical question. What else can be done to solve the mystery? How can the police find someone that lurks in the shadows and is able to disguise his actions in broad daylight? The police are limited in their power and ability to investigate. They would like to be able to go into each house one by one until they can find the murderer. However, that violates the rights of everyone in the city as well as could ultimately be fruitless. The desire to put the city on lockdown and systematically search every house for wrong-doers is eerily foreshadowing for Berlin. The police decide to instead conduct targeted investigations of individuals with a history of the mental health.

The criminals, on the other hand, are not limited by “the law”. They are able to mobilize the eyes of the streets, the beggars, to help spot the anomalous behavior that ultimately leads to the killer. The ability to mobalize a large cohort of the cities population, allows them to accomplish more in a shorter amount of time. Ultimately, it is the fact that the beggars have a stronger connection to the community than the police. It is a blind man who is able to recognize the whistle and quickly notify a comrade that could track him.

The difference of the two methods of investigations is magnified by each groups discussion of how to find the murderer. The two discussions take place at the same time with both groups structured with a similar hierarchy and method of analysis. The shots mirror one another as each group analysis their position and how to proceed. Further highlighting the similarities of the two parties. Who is good and who is bad? The criminals are the ones that ultimately locate Beckert with unlawful methods, while the police are unable to find Beckert using lawful methods.

Psychological Thriller

M is a crime thriller through and through and even follows the formula of a crime procedural. Part of its success is due to Lang slowly, and carefully, revealing information and clues. We never actually witness a crime, yet Lang’s use of the camera, staging, and sequencing makes it clear what is happening through the art of suggestion. He is also able to keep the killer’s identity hidden from the viewer for more than half of the film. Our only definitive clue of the killer is that he whistles “In the Hall of the Mountain King” when he is on the hunt.

The film begins by establishing a strong emotional connection. The viewer can see that a killer has already been on the loose for awhile. His presence has worked its way into the children’s playground songs. The tension begins the moment that we see the shadow of the killer, cast over his wanted poster, as he stares down at young Elsie Beckmann. We then see how his method of abduction can be accomplished unsuspectingly in the middle of the day. We then experience the loss of Elsie Beckmann with her mother as she beckons for her daughter. The calls ring out as we see shots of empty solitude throughout the area. We only need to see the murder of one child to get caught up to speed with the state of emotions in Berlin.

The way that Lang layers the perspective of citizens around the city and their reactions to the state of affairs helps build the authenticity and realism of the situation. It becomes less of a crime mystery and more of an examination of how society responds to fear. The inclusion of so many perspectives primes the audience for the way that Lang structures and portrays the protagonist, heroes, criminals, authority, and victims. Thus, leading to a climax where we are presented with criminals challenging other criminals on what is acceptable criminal behavior and the associated punishments.

Suspense

One of the most tense moments in the film comes when the criminal organization is on the cusp of apprehending Beckert. Through the efforts of the beggars union, Beckhert is identified by his trademark whistle. Beckert, now on the run, leads the criminal manhunt to an office building that has closed down for the night and is guarded by night watchmen and a locked gate. The criminals arrive and are able to coax there way in, silence the guards, and systematically analyze and neutralize the security system. They are then able to systematically and procedurally work their way through the building room by room looking for Beckert, including, jackhammering their way through the ceiling of the safe room.

A guard gets free the moment that the criminals identify the room where Beckert is hiding. They are now up against the clock as they race to locate Beckert. Beckert’s hiding place is within a corridor full of locked storage lockers. The camera is focused on Beckert’s face as he listens to the search party tear into each locker. The sound of their search getting closer and closer. The tension of the search and in the incoming police continues to build until they finally smash into his locker.

Sound

M would not have had the same impact had it not been for the use of sound technology. Several facets of the film were elevated by the use of sound. Sound created a greater intensity of emotion, as seen when Mrs. Beckmann calls out for Elsie. The suspense and thrill was heightened by the sound, e.g. Beckert’s whistle signaling that he is on the hunt or the sound of doors being smashed in as Beckert waits in fear for his capture. Sound also allows for the film as a whole to flow more naturally than a silent film would allow. We can hear quick banter or the sounds of action off screen that would not be captured through an intertitle without being completely distracting and clumsy.

Lang showed how sound was not just a tool that allowed for people to talk, but was an integral part of foundation to the film. Sound was in essence a character of its own. Beckert’s whistle is his only identifier in the beginning of the film. He is not a physical character, but instead a sound. “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is as much the murderer as “dunnnn dunnnn dunnn dun dun dun” is the killer in Jaws. Sound allows for the viewers imagination to take over and help build up the tension on behalf of the filmmaker.

Camera Work & Editing

Cinematography

The dark tone, deep shadowing, and use of light throughout the film was artfully crafted by Fritz Arno Wagner’s unique cinematography that became synonymous with the German Expressionist style. Examples of Wagner’s other German expressionist films were: Destiny (1921), Nosferatu (1922), Spione (1928), Kameradschaft (1931), and Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933). The lighting was not just used to create a tone and mood, but was critical to how the story was told. One of the first shots is of Beckert’s shadow as he hunts his prey. The ominous figure’s shadow heightens the suspense and mystery more than if we saw the actor.

Framing

Fritz Lang framed each shot in a way that helped emphasize the emotions being conveyed within the story. The position of the actors within the frame, the position of the camera in relation to the actors, and the general composition of the shots were all components that were considered for each shot. This level of detail towards heightening the display of emotion is another example of the German Expressionist style.

Low Angle Shots

One example of how Lang used various camera angles to emphasize the internal emotions and positions of characters was through low angle shots. The camera position was used throughout the film to highlight both positions of power and vulnerable situations for the subject in frame.

A shot of Lohmann in his office as he talks on the phone, is captured by a camera located under his desk. The extreme low angle shot helps emphasize his position of power and control, but more importantly, his feeling of power and control.

Another example is when Beckert is hiding in the storage lockers and anxiously waiting for the search party to find him. In this case he is not in a position of power, but instead in a vulnerable position. The way that Beckert is framed in this shot is similar to how a hero might be framed before being captured or killed. In this case the “hero” is actually the villain, not even an anti-hero. Thus, the shot helps further complicate the emotional core of the film and strengthens the ambiguity built in to the story’s strucutre.

Mirror Shots

Mirrors are used in M to support Beckert’s internal emotional distress. This can be seen in three different situations. The first, is when we see Beckert distorting his face in a mirror. This is the first time that we see Beckert’s face and what we are seeing is his internal demon taking over. This is something that foreshadows his monologue at the end of the film.

Another example is when Beckert spots a victim in the mirror of a department store street display. This time we see the young girl in the mirror from the perspective of Beckert. We see his reaction through the glass of the display. The scene cuts back and forth between Beckert and the young girl in the mirror. Beckert transitions more and more with each cut between him and the girl in the mirror.

Beggar’s Union Tracking Shots

A two minute long tracking shot through the Beggar’s Union shows the innerworkings and driving commodities within the organization. The shot starts off with a man organizing cigarette and cigar butt remnants by size and then proceeds through the building showing the other activities. All of the activities surround leisure or food, with patrons playing games, organizing food, or sleeping. The scene feels more natural and fluid by the use of the tracking shot.

The tracking shot seamlessly transitions into another tracking shot. This one is thirty seconds long and focuses on the recruitment of personnel to keep watch on the streets. The unique moment in this tracking shot is the way the camera appears to move through the center of a window grid.

Editing

The editing is one of the most important aspects when making a film. M maintains a fluid and consistent emotional tone throughout the film. A significant portion of that success is due to Paul Falkenberg’s editing. One sequence that highlights this is during the meetings of the Police and the Thieves. Both meetings follow the same form and makeup of one another and they both discuss what action must be taken to stop the murderer.

The way that the two meetings are spliced together creates a juxtaposition of their different approaches, while also noting how similar the two are to one another. Both have rituals and rules that maintain order within their ranks. They are both are organized and thoughtful in their actions. The leaders run the meeting, but everyone contributes ideas until the majority is in agreement. These are all things that make them similar.

The differences that are seen are in the methods they desire to use to find the murderer. Each group’s perspective is rooted in their moral code and standard operating procedures. The police want to come up with a systematic way to rule out potential suspects. The thieves want to use surveillance to cast a wide net. The police lean more towards the use of technology and science and the thieves lean more towards man power and ingenuity.


Rating: 5 out of 5.

Directed by: Fritz Lang

Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner

Written by: Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou

Editing By: Paul Falkenberg

Starring: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Gründgens, Friedrich Gnaß, Ellen Widmann, & Inge Landgut.

Runtime: 1h 49m

Genre: Thriller, Mystery, Crime

Distributed by: Vereinigte Star-Film GmbH


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