Released May 11, 1931
Screenplay: Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang
Director: Fritz Lang
Stars: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Otto Wernicke
Adding Character: Inge Landgut, Theodor Loos, Gustaf Gründgens, Friedrich Gnaß, Fritz Odemar, Paul Kemp
The German word for “murderer” is Mörder. (Seems more like “murder”, but, nope, it’s “murderer”.) It stands to reason, then, that the standalone M of the title of Fritz Lang’s 1931 Expressionist, terror odyssey is the cousin of Hawthorne’s scarlet letter A, and that somebody, some Mörder, has not only behaved badly, but, as with A-for-adulteress Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s novel, been labeled accordingly.
Turns out, we’re actually dealing with a Meuchelmörder, an assassin, or, in the vernacular, a murderer so evil, he rates an entirely different noun, one that separates him from, say, a robber-killer. A Meuchelmörder is a dangerous psychopath prone to a cold-blooded and wicked sociopathy that gives the psychopathy freedom to roam about and wreak mayhem. It makes one wonder if Lang resorts to an M as much because the deeds of the Meuchelmörder are so hideous, we have to hush and not say too much about them. M, and that is all.
Well, not quite. We have a doozy of a Meuchelmörder on our hands, one that resonates almost 85 years later, mostly because of the way the Meuchelmörder’s psyche is “unboxed” by Lang and, ultimately, Peter Lorre. Lang goes out of his way to hide from us much of what Lorre’s bizarre Hans Beckert perpetrates, but to do so, he doesn’t detract with overblown makeup, wild hand gestures, or unreal and overlarge shadows cast over Lorre, techniques that are typical of German Expressionist films. Instead, he borrows from the fantasy and fantastical elements of Expressionism and slips Hans Beckert’s actions into the shadows and out of sight. We are left to imagine the worst, even possibly exaggerating what we can’t see.
Still, we know that what is obscured is ruthless. The aftermath is undeniable, even if we can only imagine how it resulted. Beckert’s victims are young. They’re lured away with classical music and balloons. Once ensnared by Beckert, they have no way out. When one child’s mother calls for her, Lang subjects us to, in agonizing real time, the realization that there will be no answer. When one child or the other or another doesn’t make it home, the hunt for the Meuchelmörder becomes a fury unto itself that whips into an uncontrollable frenzy. Lang, who later made a film called Fury (1936), which dealt with an out-of-control mob, is a genius at the exponents of mob formation. While nobody is looking, one becomes three become eight become 20 become 50 become the entire town. To be sure, we, the audience, are at the front of the pack, swinging whatever we can find over our heads as we call the loudest for the Meuchelmörder’s head.
And then an astonishing thing happens. Hans Beckert is forced out of the shadows but into the dark of the bright light of guilt, and Peter Lorre delivers a soliloquy that becomes the opening salvo to his colloquy with the mob, and we…sympathize and almost advocate for Beckert’s life, if not for Beckert’s position.
With Lorre’s Hans Beckert pinned down, Lang reminds us that a mob is never all righteous. There comes a point in every mob’s actions when the line between punishment and abject persecution becomes unclear, when it’s more about the mob winning than it is about the mob achieving the so-called common goal that brought it together. It’s as if the mob’s numerosity shames it into insisting its members must be right, or else why are so many engaged in such outrageous behavior? Why are several against one? Instead of seeing what unfolds as a pile-on, they look to their numbers for validation that they’ve backed the right cause. Thus, the good of the many becomes much more important than the rights of the one. From the mob’s perspective, as a collective body, it must prevail for the notion of righteousness to be true.
It’s that little bit of wrong in the right that breathes life into Beckert’s plea for his life. The rest of any hope comes from Lorre’s tour-de-force performance as a trapped man trying to explain how he can’t help it, the mitigating circumstances we hear about in modern trials during the sentencing phase. Every time I watch that scene, with Lorre down on his knees begging for mercy, hoping to explain himself to the ironic mob of fellow criminals who stage a mock trial in a dank basement, complete with a homeless man “appointed” to be Beckert’s defense attorney, I notice the silent, silent extras observing a genius nail his craft. What must it have been like, I wonder, to have worked on that set watching Peter Lorre scream about Hans Beckert’s compulsion to kill, “Will nicht! Muss! Will nicht! Muss!” (“Don’t want to! Must! Don’t want to! Must!”)?
There is much brilliance in the lynch-mob trial scene, for it is embedded with commentary about unemployment, unfair persecution, the death penalty, the right to mental healthcare, and misguided crime and punishment, some of which comes straight from the mouth of our Meuchelmörder. It transforms Lorre’s character from being an evil caricature to an evil enigma, something much scarier because it is human, real. It could live next door. It may have rights. It might even feel guilt or pain or sympathy with its opponents, for it knows what it has wrought and will work again, if given the chance. Even more compelling is the fact that Hans Beckert is a timeless character who could exist and subsist today. He is well-drawn by Lorre and Lang, to be sure. But he is also crafted and scripted in a way that allows you to close your eyes and wonder when you are as you realize Beckert’s humanness, presented through his evilness, transcends the confines and constructs of era. ♠EL
The Criterion Collection™ Blu-ray™ of M is available here.
Deborah Leigh is not an Amazon Associate.