Let me start out by saying that Fritz Lang’s M is my favorite movie of all time, so of course I’m going to recommend it. Go see it now because I’m going to spoil it like crazy. I own the Criterion Collection’s version of M on Blu-Ray, but you can also rent it on Amazon Prime or if you’re a cheapskate unwilling to pay for the best movie ever, go watch it from Archive.org because the film itself is in the public domain now.
M debuted in 1931, starring Peter Lorre as a child murderer. This was, incidentally, Lorre’s third movie and first major role, and he did an excellent job as an insane child murderer. Forthwith are a few thoughts of mine, fresh from having watched the movie again.
Synopsis with Spoliers
Peter Lorre plays Hans Beckert, a man with a problem. Beckert was released from an asylum with a clean bill of health and lives in Berlin, where he is a perfectly normal person who avoids trouble. Except for one little thing, where he likes to murder children, especially girls. Other than that, perfectly normal.
Beckert starts out the movie finding a little girl, Elsie Beckmann. He entices her by buying a balloon from a blind man and offering to buy her sweets before taking her out into the forest and murdering her. After he kills Beckmann, the city of Berlin—with more than 4 million people in 1930—goes into a panic as there are no clues as to who is committing these murders. The police have no idea, people in the streets are accosting anyone for even talking to a child, and the madness of crowds (about which I have a book recommendation) is overwhelming the ability for police to respond. Because the police are getting nowhere, they try more and more desperate schemes to find a clue, violating everybody’s rights along the way.
Meanwhile, organized crime in Berlin is feeling the pinch from the police, who think the child murderer is one of them. They decide to find the murderer themselves and enlist an army of beggars to patrol the streets, as once this guy is gone, the police will let up and they can get back to the status quo ante.
The police visit Beckert’s room, having talked to the landlady. They recognize him as a suspect—one of literally hundreds of people released from asylums with clean bills of health, but who might have it in them to be a murderer. The inspector who visits picks up a few clues, but isn’t all that suspicious until Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) pieces it together based on the brand of cigarette butts left at the scene of another murder. The police then stake out Beckert’s room, waiting for him to arrive.
A blind man who sold Beckert a balloon hears Beckert’s distinctive whistling of In the Hall of the Mountain King and immediately alerts a youth in the crime system and has him chase Beckert, who has found another target and is taking her around Berlin to buy candy and toys. The youth marks Beckert’s jacket with a chalk M and this begins a dramatic chase through the streets of Berlin and into a large office building. Eventually, the criminal underworld assault the building and tear apart office after office looking for him. They find him, but not before a night watchman is able to ring the police. The police are too late, as the underworld has captured Beckert, but they do nab one guy who eventually blabs after being threatened as an accessory to murder.
The underworld holds a trial for Beckert, even including a defense attorney. Everybody, including the defense attorney, is against Beckert, with the vast majority wanting him to die for his crimes. Beckert admits to his crimes and claims insanity, that the only time he doesn’t feel the overwhelming pressures in his mind are when he is in the process of seducing and murdering a child. The attorney wants Beckert locked away for good rather than executed, as he believes it would be hypocritical for people who choose to kill to take the life of someone who kills strictly by compulsion. This defense goes about as well as you’d expect in front of a mob looking for blood. Just as the crowd storms toward Beckert and plans to take his life, the police burst in and arrest everyone.
At the end of the movie, we have an ambiguous scene with a series of jurists and the mother of one of the slain girls stating that this action won’t bring the children back. The movie abruptly ends, with no fade to black or credits sequence.
One of the clever things that director Fritz Lang (also my favorite director, funny how that works) did in this film was to play on the idea that the normal world and the underworld have similar methods of organization and institutions. We juxtapose the heads of organized crime divisions alongside the police chief and his lieutenants and inspectors. As an army of police made its way through the city, chasing down leads and breaking up all kinds of underworld nightclubs, an army of beggars patrols during the day, completely ignored by the populace. When the underworld captures Beckert, they give him a trial; after the police bust in, we cut to a trial in court.
This type of juxtaposition was not, strictly speaking, new. That said, Lang did a particularly good job of it. I also want to tie this in to Gary Becker’s 1968 paper entitled Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach. In the paper, Becker lays out the argument that criminality exists in part because, for some people, the economic benefits of committing crime outweigh their next-best alternatives. This jibes with what Lorre’s Hans Beckert says (in a movie released 37 years before Becker’s paper): these people commit crimes but they can stop when they wish to, or when they get a better-paying job than what they’re earning on the streets.
Going a step further from Becker, we get to Peter Leeson and Douglas Bruce Rogers’ paper on organized crime. In their paper, they make the argument that organized crime arises in a vacuum: it fills a space which is failed by the normal system of rules and institutions and governments. In the absence of effective rule, others establish quasi-governance, which is exactly what we see in the film.
One final note I want to make here is the idea of the army of beggars. This is, again, not a new idea (though it plays out quite well). Going back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character, we have the Baker Street Irregulars, urchins spread throughout the city whom Holmes pays for information and to tail people. Holmes picks these children for the same reason the underworld sorts pick their army of beggars: these are people we normally go out of our ways not to see, and so they make for outstanding observers.
I think one of the things I like the most about M is the lack of a musical score with its soundtrack. A good score in a movie brings with it a lot of emotional content, but what we typically find is that films and television shows rely on the music to force you into a particular mindset. The music is dramatic and therefore you feel the drama, but the problem is that with so many films, the music acts as a saccharine high covering up the inanity of the film itself. You get caught up in the music and don’t realize until after you walk out of the theater that the ending made no sense, or that the only way for the film to work would be if all of the characters were idiots.
By contrast, M has no music at all (save for the occasional whistling), and even stretches with no sound whatsoever. Lang came out of the silent era, which used musical scores as an alternative to speech; in a twist, the speech in M (a film released within 4 years of the first-ever talkie and Lang’s first talking film) is an alternative to having a musical score. You don’t need music and sound effects to tell you how to feel; that’s what the camera play, lighting, tracking, and script are for. This style takes a lot of risk, as music has such an emotional impact on us and can paper up weak moments in a film. The lack of a score puts so much more stress on the other elements, and I’d say it highlights just how good the rest of the film is.
A Foreboding Fall: Late Weimar Germany
M was written in 1929-1930 and released in 1931, meaning that it came during the latter years of Weimar Germany. Weimar Germany was a tumultuous time, having had off-and-on street fighting and riots across the country for the better part of a decade. Add to that the Great Depression—and Germany was one of the hardest-hit countries, made even worse by their required restitution payments as part of the Treaty of Versailles—and you have a powder keg. It doesn’t take a far-sighted genius to see how things were going downhill. That said, you do get a sense of foreboding from the movie, particularly from a police force happy to violate the rights of citizens to find their criminal and a general public all too eager to make false accusations of criminal behavior and inform the police on people they don’t like. This film depicts a completely unhealthy society, one in which institutions are barely hanging on and the idea of liberty is disappearing between the public mob and the increasingly authoritarian government. One of the ironies of the film is that the organized crime world is the stabilizing force in this film, as they want to return to the status quo ante and continue to make their money while government and the general public turn a blind eye toward them.
The Conclusion: Justice Denied
The conclusion of this film hits on several broad concepts of justice. At the end, one of the grieving mothers states that none of this will bring back her daughter. This emotion comes from one form of justice: restorative justice. You can return a pilfered item to a person or pay for injuries done if you break somebody’s arm or drive a car into their house. But when people die, no system of laws can bring the dead back to life. In this case, there is no reasonable form of restorative justice, leaving the ending hollow.
A second form of justice is retributive, and this is the form of justice that the underworld wants. They see that Beckert has murdered and that his murders have harmed their lives and livelihoods, and therefore they want him gone. Several of the crowd—particularly women—cry out that no mother would allow a man like Beckert to live. They want to punish him for the evil he has done. Beckert’s counsel argues that they have no right to kill an insane man, and that the correct response is to have the State put him away in an institution, where he will not cause harm to others. The crowd does not like this idea, making the point that Beckert could easily break out or be released of his own recognizance within a few years and be free to murder again. After all, we in the audience know that he was already released once. Just as the mob is ready to enact retributive justice, the police break in, thwarting them and denying us another form of justice in the process.
The final type of justice in this film is one I’ll call preventative justice. This is different from retributive justice in that the point is not to punish the aggressor, but rather to prevent further harm to come from others. There are two possible ways in which we could see this in the film: Beckert dies or he remains locked up for life. When the jurists sit at their bench, we don’t know the final answer: do they commit him to an asylum or do they use the death penalty on him? Weimar Germany did have capital punishment for murder, but Beckert is insane, and typically insanity is a defense against capital punishment. And if they do commit him to an asylum, does he actually stay, or does he get released with a few years like the mob warned? Once again, we don’t get a satisfying application of justice—even this form of preventative justice is left hanging. As a quick side note, I imagine that if the film were directed in the 1960s (in Europe) or 1970s (in the US), we’d get an extra couple of minutes seeing Beckert committed to an asylum and then released with a couple of years, cutting out with him in a different room in a different city, fading to black as he exits his room while whistling.