In Berlin, presumably in either the 1920s or early 1930s, panic has stricken the city. The cause? A child murderer, revealed to be Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), who prays on children by buying them balloons, candy, and other things they might enjoy, has quietly rolled over the city from above to torment it and cause a wave of paranoia. The effects are immediate and perpetual, causing Berlin’s residents to remain cautious of everyone whom they see talking with a child in the street, even if the particulars of their conversation consists only of telling the young child the time. His effect, thus, is prismatic – he causes everyone to turn on each other, so that his physical presence almost becomes a moot point when the idea of him looms large over the city.
Simultaneously, the police, led by Inspector Karl Lohmann, have intensified their search and continue to scour the city for clues as to the identity or whereabouts of the murderer, and the organized criminals in the area are growing increasingly testy with the murderer. He’s wreaking havoc on the city, but worst of all, as the film’s most talkative characters put it, he’s giving organized crime a bad name. With their business being adversely affected, the underground’s gang of bullies decides to call on the city’s beggars to improvise a carefully planned watch for the murderer in hopes that they will be able to catch him and do away with his evil-doings, perhaps becoming the heroes of the day.
M, as envisioned through director Fritz Lang’s mind, is a stark and minimalist nightmare, most notably in its employment of that eternal silent film dialectic, positing both fear and hope for the future: sound. The film is technically a sound film, indeed possibly the first masterpiece of sound, but the film is largely silent. Late in the film dialogue, and monologue, takes center-stage, but the early film is a shining example of unnerving quiet. Lang, a silent film director by heart, clearly knew the importance of the physical image and the power of restraint. This doesn’t hamstring the film’s use of sound though – it gives it new light. With so little of it in the film, every noise however small plays like a needle-on-a-chalkboard shattering the cavernous silence only to be quickly consumed by it. Hearing loud, sharp steps break through the comfort of silence infuses a haunting atmosphere to the film, making each minute noise all the louder and letting us know that the empty streets can reveal all. In addition, the use of the leitmotif of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, which is whistled by Beckert several times throughout, is a revelation. Simply put, it’s a foreboding nightmare. Whenever we hear it, without even seeing so much as a shadow, we know that Beckert is nearby, and our hands grasp our chairs or anything else around to save us. It may be the most chilling sound ever captured on film.
This minimalist but powerful use of sound is all the more telling for its reflection of the anxiety produced in early cinema with the introduction of sound. As it was initially thought, the introduction of sound to the film world would sacrifice artistic integrity by allowing characters to simply say what had until then been conveyed through the cinematic lens. Here, Lang essays the ultimate statement to the power of sound when modulated and used to enhance the cinematic perspective. He even introduces his main character via sound, having his shadow overtake his own wanted poster as we hear an unnerving, high-pitched gasping anxiousness in the form of a voice asking a little girl about her day. Because it’s the sound that introduces us to Beckert and that comes to define him, we see Lang not only using sound because he could, but because he saw meaning in it for defining character and mood in ways images could not. When we hear a character but don’t see them, it’s the thought of the character, the idea that he can be anywhere and control our minds and command the screen even when he isn’t physically in view, that takes center stage. For Beckert, a man who is at once nowhere and everywhere, no visual introduction, which would innately reveal his physical person-hood to us and thereby render him a man rather than an enigma, could have been as perfect.
Lang’s subversive understanding of the power of sound runs to the core of the film – in fact it is sound which first reveals the killer to someone in the film, a blind man, and sets in motion the end-game – and it had to be bold. It seems as though Lang was giving us a wink about the possibilities of sound, with he as the blind man who could now “see” the dangers of the world around him more clearly, not with his eyes, but with his ears. Of course, once Beckert is discovered, the visual image of a chalk “M” becomes yet again the de facto marker of the evil-doer – Lang wasn’t ready to supplant the visuality of film to sound just yet, and he saw the two as complements.
Thus, if sound enhances the picture, it certainly doesn’t detract from the visual element either; M is a sight for sore eyes, and one which strives with every ounce of its being to make them sorer still. It essays Berlin as a dark, expressionist city with impossibly wide, empty, angular streets, a landscape of the mind that doesn’t sit safely in the cranial cavity. The cinematography conveys the sense of paranoia and fear that infuses the streets and the minds who inhabit it. Everything is steeped in a general mist of gloom, telling as a possible manifestation of the ever-lasting dread hovering over the city post-WWI and which had manifested in many silent films before-hand. The city is largely empty, reflecting an emptiness to the people which inhabit it, an emptiness that causes them to forego human care for the children and search for blame in a character who may be the most human of all. While Beckert himself is depicted visually as quiet, timid, and unimposing, the other humans – particularly in a gross, garish scene with four caricatured aristocrats looking deformed with greed and playing cards – jump off the screen with selfish ghoulishness. All of this amounts to an achingly, gut-churningly beautiful film, the kind which underlines its cynicism and brittle despair with broad, cavernously grey strokes.
The audio-visual complement persists not only in Lang’s direction but also in Peter Lorre’s performance, a combination of a famous expressive baby face and a haunted, creaky warble of a voice. Excepting a powerful late film monologue delivered in his trademark shriek, he allows his face and eyes to do the talking. Due to the limitations of silent filmmaking, actors had to rely almost entirely on their body and especially their face to express emotion, and the director had to ensure that the film was executed in a way that highlighted this aspect of the actors, and this is exactly what Lorre and Lang excel at here. Lorre’s use of facial expressions in M is ghoulishly uncanny. He is able to convey a childlike simplicity mixed with a bit of overconfidence all covering a demented interior that is easily frightened and horrified. Beckert is a conflicted character, sold entirely by Lorre’s anguished, contorted baby-face and wide, fear-stricken eyes. What is he afraid of, we ask? Society for catching him, but also himself, and that self-reflexivity separates him from the rest of the film’s cast of ne’er-do-wells.
What does it mean then that Beckert can best a city that should be able to control him, and what does it mean that Lang fixates on the ghoulish, distorted, inhuman backrooms of Berlin rather than Beckert himself? Perhaps many things, but most of all it conveys a critique of the sacrifice of morality and humanity for wealth. Lang’s characters are hollow on the inside, and in Lang’s famously moralizing vision of the world, Beckert is an avenger brought forward to reveal their humanity or lack thereof. The film slowly reveals how little hope there is for most of the individuals within the city, regardless of Hans Beckert; he exposes their selfishness and their mob-like mentality, what they have already lost, as well as their willingness to let much of the crime in the area slide under their noses because they aren’t immediately affected by it. Berlin here is a crippled place, a moral desert with the only character to realize his flaws the one who would normally be its most reprehensible. It’s more than a place; it’s a nightmare, rendered aurally as well as visually as an expressionist dream-world where we send the pits of our fears out to play to hide them from ourselves. And it’s presided over by a group of bullies pulling strings from below that likely mirrored Lang’s own increasing tension about the rise of Nazi Germany as he was making the film.
M also occupies a fascinating place in Lang’s canon. Always interested in paranoia and weakness, Lang often delighted in wrecking havoc on society through immoral characters, such as his Dr. Mabuse, who could control the public and inflict paranoia upon them. This in turn is perhaps a reflection of his own admittedly controlling nature behind the camera, his fascination with obsession and power. But it was also increasingly a reflection of the society he lived in, at this time increasingly controlled by the rise of Nazism. Lang was deeply worried about German culture after the war and the paranoia and decay that had gripped it. His early films uneasily displayed sympathy for the German people. But by 1931, Lang’s film were more unambiguously bitter and angry -he would soon flee the country, likely having given up on a nation that had, in its poverty and victimization, turned to standing by as a party of bullies would rise to try to take over the world.
This is perhaps the film where he addressed his fascination with Germany after the war most directly and with the cavalier frankness of a man sure of his convictions. Unlike Dr. Mabuse, Beckert is no powerful, controlling figure. Yet he still manages to inflict paranoia and control the populace as a result of their own doing. The image is different from the one presented in Mabuse the Gambler; here Mabuse isn’t Beckert, the lone singular villain, but the society around him, the wealthy criminals controlling people who are no longer paranoid about it, but accepting, letting it slip into their moral fabric and doing nothing about it. What was once scary is now part of the status quo. M does not pity the public; it reveals Lang’s contempt for them for, as one character learns late in the film. Seeing the film, it’s almost impossible not to see Lang’s prescience about a society standing by as Nazism takes hold with small crimes that would prove a slippery slope to greater evil.
Thus, the film’s moral center is shockingly radical, even by today’s standards. Toward the end of the film, the killer is put on vigilante trial by the public, and Lang makes explicit the implicit fear of the film: is Beckert an agent of a decaying society, rather than a single actor, and if so, what would it mean for that society to exercise its very moral decay to punish him? The film is not only anti-death penalty, but more subversively, a critique of a society on the edge of decay looking for a moral center in banding together to scapegoat another man as the true criminal. We dislike Beckert, and the film is wise not to sympathize with him – choosing Beckert or larger society would be a false dichotomy. But by the end of the film we see Beckert as the most helpless character of all, and even, perhaps, a victim. That takes guts, and Lang shoves them in our faces like the rotting innards of a society being served to them on a silver platter.
But subtext is no replacement for pure filmmaking economy and craft. Thus, the core of the film’s appeal is not in the intellectual discussions about the film’s implications, but in the raw limbo of the unnerving, deliciously perturbed immediate unease of the experience. It’s as tight, efficient, and unforgivingly plotted as any good film by a director so interested in control and calculation should be. Even more-so, it’s a daring film, even by today’s standards, from the “wild years” of film where the conventions of how to tell a story hadn’t been set in stone quite yet. This gives Lang room for play. And play he did – he didn’t react to sound standoffishly, but like a boy discovering a new action figure and plowing head-first into imagining new ways to incorporate its likeness into the imaginary scenarios he would set up with the old ones, forgetting neither the new nor the old and bringing both together with madcap excitement. Through this, Lang weaves the literal story of sound and image as he constructs something so deceptively simple we gasp in fear at ourselves for the indictment Lang turns it into. If the material is solemn and unforgiving, Lang plays it with dark energy and a delicious grin.