Featured: M For Masterpiece – Fritz Lang’s Psychological Stunner
One of my Top 10 Criterion films, the great German director Fritz Lang, two years before the rise of Hitler and his exile from his home, produced a stunning film that haunts viewers from the opening sequence. A group of children plays a game of “eenie, meanie, meanie, moe,” and then exit school for the day. Their mothers are preparing for their return. One child, a young girl named Elsie, is playing with a ball down the street when she is approached by a man only in a shadow whistling, “In The Hall Of The Mountain King.” He buys a balloon for Elsie and then goes missing, with the ball rolling in a field, the balloon flying into telephone lines, and Elise’s mother calling for her with no response. She is not the first child to go after multiple children have been murdered. From there, we are thrust into a horrifying place that lives on a thin electric wire.
In motion comes the high anxiety of a society who becomes increasingly paranoid and jump at the moment a suspect is apprehended. The police can do what they can but cannot control the public frenzy ready to lynch someone at a moment’s notice. Legal advancements such as fingerprints from the taunting notes are utilized, but nothing popping up. The chief of police orders the raids of underground bars run by the city’s organized crime bosses. With their business doing badly because of the raids, they decide to become vigilantes, use beggars as spies, and run their own type of court for the killer. The blind beggar who sold the balloon to Elsie recognizes the killer by whistle and the chase is on to get to him before the police do. A chase in and out of a building leads to a kangaroo court inside an abandoned brewery, reflecting the vigilantism and moral panic of a Germany in fracture over demonic killers and “loose morals” that the Nazis would pounce on.
In his first film with sound, Lang does not use it too much and avoids mixing in music at all. The mood is as eerie as it can be without it; only the imagery is needed to convey the darkness of the entire mise en scene. This is the leitmotif, a recurring musical phrase that was usually seen in operas. Even the title only needs one letter to explain who is it – Mörder, “murderer” in German. Before we see the killer, Hans Beckert, we hear his whistle and his voice. Then, when we first see him in the flesh; he does not need to show us the killings because the sight of the killer himself is grotesque in nature. Again, resorting to visuals, the chalked M is put on Beckert’s overcoat by another beggar who is warned that he is the murderer. Beckert looking over his shoulder and seeing that he is, another word starting with an M, marked. This is the face of horror on a piece of horror delivered flawlessly by Peter Lorre.
This was Lorre’s first starring role after years as a vaudeville comedian. It made him an international star very much that when he also fled Germany in 1933, he was granted asylum in the UK and cast by Alfred Hitchcock in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the first of several roles as a villain that carried into Hollywood. Before his low-key sinister tone in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, he gave, for a killer, a monologue that draws a line between criminals of choice – the kangaroo court, as mentioned – and the criminal that lives in his mind that controls the urge to kill. As he screams out, “I can not help myself! I have no control over this evil thing that is inside me. The fire, the voices, the torment! Who knows what it is like to be me?” Hans Beckert is evil and he knows it – even if it’s beyond his control. Criminal psychology was something misunderstood back then; a killer is a killer and the Germans went on to execute their killers by the hangman’s noose or by guillotine. There was no respect of humanity such people who felt the inner beast. Yet, Lang puts out there a voice of a madman who would never have been listened to, even by the courts.
This was in the era of political and economic catastrophe from the Great Depression and the growing rise of Bolshevism. The Nazis and Adolph Hitler took the social heat at the time and turned on its head into the power they would force themselves into and blow up in a dozen years. They even took the clip of Lorre’s monologue and re-edited it into an anti-Semitic propaganda film as well as a reason to keep capital punishment as a way of weeding out society’s diseased figures. Lang’s last film, The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse, was his last film in Germany when Joseph Goebbels tried to recruit him into his Ministry of Propaganda. Lang considered M to be his favorite because of the social criticism of child neglect and the warning, in a time of serial killers in Germany’s 20s (Peter Kurten, Carl Grossman, and Freidrich Haarmann), is simplified in the film’s final line by Elsie’s mourning mother. “One has to keep closer watch over the children. All of you.”
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