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M: The Beginning of a Genre

Written by Nick Leitzke

I have come to realize in the past year that the early days of cinema gave us the primer for everything that followed. In 1930 ‘Hell’s Angels’ set the special effects standard for decades afterward. Some modern action movies that rely on computer animation could still learn a thing or two about realism from Howard Hughes’s masterpiece. When it comes to cinematic serial killers, look to Fritz Lang and his first talkie, ‘M.’ Fritz Lang had directed a dozen silent movies by the time ‘M’ debuted in 1931, including the dystopian classic ‘Metropolis.’ In a cinematic era when being edgy amounted to revealing an extra inch of cleavage, the idea of a serial killer pedophile was anything but ordinary. Hannibal Lector and Buffalo Bill can trace their lineage back to ‘M,’ and that’s a pretty amazing starting point for such a rehashed idea.

‘M’ tells the story of Berlin serial killer Hans Beckert, whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as he subdues his young victims. The beginning of the movie speaks for itself.

Panic grips Berlin, and as chaos overwhelms the general public the police become desperate in their attempts to catch Beckert. They begin raiding underground clubs and randomly questioning known criminals, all to no avail. But that doesn’t stop them. With all this extra attention, the organized crime business begins to suffer. This will not do. A group of criminal masterminds convenes to decide what to do about this serial killer situation, and they decide they must catch Beckert themselves to get the police off their backs.

Two manhunts unfold in the city, one by the police and one by the criminal underground, with both zeroing in on Beckert. While the police discover his home and wait for Beckert to return so they can apprehend him, the criminals find him in the streets luring another young girl down darkened alleyways. It is Beckert’s whistling that gives him away, that reveals his identity to the blind beggar who sold Beckert the child-shaped balloon early in the movie. They mark Beckert with a chalk M on his back so they can track him, and eventually the criminals corner him in an office building. Beckert is caught in the attic, trapped like an animal and taken to a warehouse where a sham trial is held. He gives an impassioned speech about the voices in his head, the voices of his victims and their mothers. The only way he can silence the voices is to keep killing.

His ‘legal representation’ points out the hypocrisy of this trial, noting that the chief judge is wanted by the authorities on three counts of manslaughter (to which the reply is, “That is irrelevant here”). Real justice does not exist here, and the crowd of criminals rushes to kill Beckert. The police arrive just in time, however, and Beckert is taken away for a real trial. Before Beckert’s official verdict is announced we see three grieving mothers, one of whom says, “This will not bring back our children.” And the movie ends.

Hans Beckert is played by Peter Lorre in his first starring role. Lorre later made a name for himself in movies like ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ ‘Arsenic and Old Lace,’ and ‘Casablanca,’ but you might remember him best as Conseil in ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.’ Lorre was a superb actor in his life, and his work in ‘M’ illustrates just how much of acting relies on the face. Even with his distinctive voice, so much of Lorre’s power came from his expressions. Simply widening his eyes shows us the fear of a cornered animal. Gazing into a mirror and pulling the corners of his mouth gives us a glimpse of an insane mind ticking slightly off kilter, struggling to see the world in moral precision but coming up tragically short.

We know this man is a monster and we know he must be brought to swift justice, but we know he is flawed just like any other man. The phrase “there but for the grace of God go I” comes to mind. Lorre brings Beckert to life with his brilliant physical acting. Just by seeing his expressions we are linked to Beckert. He represents the dark side of our humanity, the horrible places none of us wish to see but we are reminded of so often every day. It is easy to see a monster and use him as a whipping post, a patsy to take our blame and make us forget about our own flaws. A poster early in the movie asks, “Wer ist der Morder,” or, “Who is the murderer?” By the end of the movie we should all wonder whether or not we are branded with our own ‘M,’ hunted and chased by some unseen mob bent on vigilante justice so they can reject their human affliction. And in the end, what does justice bring? As the grieving mother says, this will not bring back our children. Fritz Lang’s haunting storytelling brings out the remarkable in Peter Lorre to create ‘M,’ the measure to which all modern serial killer movies must be compared.

Posted by admin   @   29 January 2010
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