Fritz Lang's 'M': A Case Study
Case Study Fritz Lang’s M
M is Fritz Lang’s first sound film registered in April 1931 but shot in 1930. The film was produced by Nero films a relatively small company very different from the UFA of Erich Pommer in which Lang had been given huge budgets to play with. With M Lang had complete independence subject to a clear budgetary limitation. The original script was by Thea von Harbou (Lang’s wife) and by Lang. The stated intention was to make a film which rejected the notion of capital punishment, but choosing the most heinous possible crime and then making a case against the death penalty. It was a theme which Lang returned to when working in the USA with his last film there: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.
The story line of M is loosely based upon the serial killer Peter Kurtin who committed his crimes in Hanover. Lang in conversation with Peter Bogdanovich in 1965 says that he was concerned to get a documentary feel to the film and specifically asked his camera operators not to try anything too fancy. Lang and von Harbou went to considerable trouble to find out about police procedure. In_ M_ the most modern techniques are examined with which to track down the murderer including graphology and psychological profiling. There is a difference here between M and the real Peter Kurtin case. In M the police eventually hit upon the idea of tracing mental health records of released asylum inmates. This puts them on the track of Franz Beckert or M played by Peter Lorre. In the case of the real Peter Kurtin the police believed that these crimes could only be committed by somebody insane. Once apprehended Peter Kurtin was deemed to be sane and was executed.
After a few seconds of black screen Lang’s film opens on a playground scene where young children are singing a song about a monster who comes to get them. A mother shouts at them to stop singing it as though it is a bad omen. A small girl fails to return from school; in a short but chilling sequence she has been approached by M whilst she is bouncing a ball against a poster offering 10,000 marks for his capture. The film cuts to the mother who is getting increasingly agitated as the girl fails to return home to lunch. Rather than use today’s typical gratuitous violence Lang signifies a horrible death through the use of empty clothes in an attic, a ball running away with no child in sight and balloons trapped in telephone wires. The last two objects being signs of innocence betrayed by what can only be imagined as an awful death.
Lang’s documentary approach becomes the study of a city which starts to turn in on itself. It is a city terrorised by an unknown demon which allows other demons to erupt. Anton Kaes makes a strong comparison between Lang and the thinking of the contemporary right-wing jurist Ernst Junger. Junger sees the city space as one of danger, fear and warfare. This required in Junger’s view a constant state of readiness as an aspect of modern living. ‘In _M _fear simultaneously unites the city in a common emotion, and fragments it, providing not community, but mutual suspicion.’ Much of the next part of the film is a series of cameos in which perfectly innocent citizens are accused of heinous crimes, the police are inundated with poison pen letters and the investigation becomes hampered with false accusations.
The role of the poison pen letter will infamously emerge in the French cinema as well firstly in Clouzot’s Le Corbeau, and later in Malle’s Lucien Lacombe. Interestingly in the latter two films these events take place in more rural settings rather than the city of modernity. The films were highly controversial and seen as unpatriotic in France because of this.
Lang’s film affords a tour of the differing sub-layers of the social make-up of the city, frequently, with a flaneurial camera although the changing camera positions are frequently from places where the point of view is out onto the street. Sometimes this point of view is a spectatorial one such as the scenes from a high angle of the police raids at street level. The audience is then taken underground into a brothel / bar environment which is the haunt of many criminals who are thoroughly turned over. There is an irony present that many other crimes are cleared up as the ‘dragnet’ both widens and deepens its search for the killer who barely appears in the first half of the film.
It is these incessant raids upon the criminal community which are beginning to effect their incomes badly which leads them to organise as a vigilante ‘other’ police force to track down the killer. The criminals are represented as being organised into divisions across the city and the discourse includes a sentiment that somehow their work is illegal but is seen as a business which just happens to be illegitimate. The underground economy of criminal networks organises the beggars of the city to be its eyes and ears, and interesting shots of the beggars spoils of cigar and cigarette butts, mimic the pristinely laid out case of burglar’s tools which has been abandoned by its owner during the raid. The beggars are organised extremely methodically with the city being broken down into units with beggars assigned to each unit mimicking in a parodical way police organisation. Lang here recognises that there are different sorts of knowledge and as the film proceeds both the local knowledge of the beggars/criminal alliance is contrasted with the rational scientific search methods utilised by the police. The police have included graphologists and psychologists to get a profile on the criminal.
Eventually, for the audience the film becomes a race between the police and the vigilante force as both start to close in on the killer. The police following up a lead from the released inmates of the asylum just miss Beckert as he emerges in search of another victim. Just as he has found a potential victim, the beggars are alerted by a blind balloon-seller who hears Beckert whistling a few bars from the Peer Gynt Suite. It is the tune diegetically associated with M and his madness signifying a monster deep inside the personality which emerges suddenly. The balloon seller heard the tune when he sold a balloon to M who had bought it for Elsie Beckmann the little girl murdered at the beginning of the film.
Throughout the film Lang’s use of sound is carefully used to add layers of meaning. As his first sound film made before sound was barely two years old Lang was relishing in the opportunities it offered to heighten the dramatic effect. Much of the film had no sound interspersed with whistles. On another occasion when the police are having a very big conference which is running in parallel to one being held by the criminals the diegesis goes off-screen indicated by the sound of a voice directing the police meeting. The audience never see the person the voice belongs to. There are subtle effects such as the balloon man putting his hands over his ears to shut out an out of tune barrel organ. All diegetic sound is temporarily suspended, to re-emerge when the balloon man takes his hands from his ears. The parallel editing of the scenes being inter-cut is also extremely well handled making the film technically innovative.
It is the criminals who find M first who has been tracked down and trapped in a modern office building near the city centre. The criminals enter the building in force and using their skills thoroughly search the building. They find M just before the police who were alerted to the break-in arrive. M is bundled off to derelict factory building a relic of the depression. In the meantime the police have found one of the burglars and are threatening to put him on a murder charge unless he tells the whereabouts of the person. At first the head of the murder investigation is doing a colleague a favour when it transpires that it is the child murderer he has been looking for, for 8 months.
In the meantime a parallel court is established in the basement of the derelict factory. It is at this point that Peter Lorre’s acting skills emerge for his powerful performance in pleading for his life is exemplary. The court scene is Lang’s opportunity to raise the issues of capital punishment very effectively. M has been assigned a defence counsel who stands up to chief criminals and the mob. The defence is at a distinct disadvantage because the criminals are acting as a judge and jury playing to the audience, however, Lorre gets a chance to put M’s case in which he pleads a dread compulsive insanity which drives him to these unspeakable acts. The acts themselves he doesn’t remember, it is only when he reads about them that he realises what he has done. This fits in with the way that M has been represented during the film. In a famous shot in front of a window framed by reflections of knives M sees a young girl staring into a shop
window. M is both visibly seen as being overcome by a madness and it is also signified by the Peer Gynt theme tune. Even though this girl escapes as she meets her mother the monster within in M has taken over as he battles with it in a cafe. M emerges to look for another victim. Lang has also shown a couple of heads nodding in the audience of the criminals’ court as M relates his tortured identity, signifying the liberal position.
The criminal leader is derisory about the madness and complains about the liberal laws on madness which might allow M to roam the streets again in a few months or years to repeat his crimes. He demands the death sentence rather than handing M over to the police and most of the crowd agree. At this point M is apprehended by the police who have arrived at the factory. However the cut to the court with the three judges two of whom appear in a black cap and the chair then donning a black cap signifies M’s execution. The last shot is of three mothers in mourning, stating that this execution will never bring their children back. The film gradually fades out as the mothers plead for parents to watch their children more carefully in the future.
Tom Gunning in his major work on Lang is fulsome about this film: ‘ The complexity and originality of its structure, the studied ambiguity and ambivalence of its themes, the power of its images and sound guarantee it a place in film history and film criticism no matter how much canons are abjured or the idea of masterpieces viewed with suspicion.’ (Gunning Tom, 2000, p163).
The film is a representation of the modern city and can be read as a return to the ambivalence expressed about the modern city in Metropolis and a continuation of the structuring of modern city space expressed in Lang’s master criminal films in which searches take on a grid oriented rational process within the communication networks of the modern city. The very binary polarities of the two main networks closing in upon M, is interesting to consider. The representations were either, of the police, or of the criminal networks organising to protect their own interests rather than from any moral imperatives.
In the film, ordinary citizens are disempowered and made a mockery of by being seen as paranoid, greedy, or just plain unpleasant. There are no positive organisations from parents nor are political parties represented as being able to tap into local knowledge. It didn’t appear as though the police had a network of informants either which is now standard fare for any TV cop-show. Perhaps given the increasing political polarisations of the time Lang felt it was better to avoid alternatives.
Perhaps a key underlying theme was that of surveillance. It was the failure of surveillance which led to Elsie Becker’s murder. It was a modernist surveillance system which enabled the beggars to track down M. It was a plea for better surveillance which emerged as the last lines of the film. If people are so alienated within the city that the people they play cards with or drink with could have been the murderer perhaps Kaes is right. He suggests that the underlying sentiments of the film urge reliance upon fear and suspicion as an organising feature of modern life.
The sentiment that these things would not be possible within a more stable rural background where everybody knows everybody could well have been a conclusion drawn by a volkish, Heimat thinking audience. The fact that Goebbels saw the film as an argument for capital punishment shows that there is a certain amount of ambivalence within the text. Gunning comments that many liberals and leftists also saw the film as sympathetic to mob justice. Perhaps Lang was content to just put the issue on the table without casting judgement at this time. Certainly it would be interesting to know how contemporary audiences read the film.
After such an excellent performance expressing a form of madness arguably the ending really fails to do justice to the issue of madness and to the problems of dealing with this and examining what might have caused these conditions. That Beckert was executed, as was Kurtin in real life, raises issues voiced by the mothers. If execution didn’t bring the children back and if execution fails to solve this ongoing social issue then neither retribution, nor reform, as types of punishment are suitable for dealing with those with mental illness. These issues are very much alive today in the UK for at time of writing the jury are out on the Soham murder trial and barely a week ago a 70+ paedophile, recently convicted for re-offending was murdered in the North-east, to a distinct lack of sympathy from the local neighbours.
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