Fritz Lang's films are marked by an uneasy tension between moral opposites: light and dark, innocence and evil, order and chaos. No subject is too mean or sordid to be outside or beneath human experience or to be illuminated, ultimately, by the vision of the artist. According to Lang, his films are like "the loveliest German fairy tales," which, despite their beauty, accumulate "an enormous amount of brutality, of cruelty and crime." Lang explains why this tension works, both in children's stories and in his films:
In fairy tales the most simple and most moral law of mankind is upheld. The good are rewarded, the evil punished. The good becomes more touching through sorrow, the evil more hateful by the initial success of their wickedness. Film yields the satisfaction of the fulfilled law just as naively as does the fairy tale, only in a form which conforms with its time.
Certainly M (M, Mörder unter uns), Lang's first sound film, functions in this manner. Considered by most critics to be Lang's masterwork, M concerns the fulfilment of moral law while amply reflecting the horrors of its time: the years following World War I in Germany, a period, according to Lang, "of the deepest despair, hysteria, cynicism, unbridled vice." Rampant inflation and other chaotic elements gradually eroded the public order. By 1930, the year before Lang made M, Nazi paramilitary groups, with their own police and tribunals, murdered, bombed, and sabotaged while the Weimar bureaucracy slowly strangled in its own red tape.
Through a highly ordered juxtaposition of visual and aural images, and through an effective blending of expressionistic and realistic styles, Lang explores the effects of this growing chaos by depicting it on personal and social planes. On the personal plane, M's central character, child murderer Hans Beckert, embodies the struggle between a weakening order and an increasingly malevolent and powerful chaos. Possessed by a doppelgänger, Beckert is a childish, soft-bellied, petit bourgeois seized by uncontrollable homicidal passions:
I can't help myself! I haven't any control over this evil thing that's inside me. It's there all the time, driving me out to wander through the streets. It's me, pursuing myself. I want to escape to escape from myself! But it's impossible. I have to obey.
When pursued by this doppelgänger, he whistles a theme from Peer Gynt, an appropriate leitmotif for his personal demon. A capricious and irresponsible character with no sense of self, Gynt saved his own life by allowing another man to drown. Similarly, Beckert keeps his own divided psyche intact by killing young girls, by submitting irresponsibly to his most primal urges.
Lang portrays Beckert as both doppelgänger, victim and victimizer, and Gynt, a self-absorbed child, in a series of images, the chief ones being mirrors and other reflective surfaces. While the police attempt to develop a psychological profile of Beckert the camera cuts to Beckert peering and making faces at himself in the mirror. In another scene the camera catches Beckert eating an apple and looking into a store window where we see him surrounded by a diamond-shaped display of knives; when the camera shifts back to Beckert's point of view, we see a mirror at the back of the window display – again surrounded by knives – where a little girl, a potential victim, suddenly appears. Beckert then begins to whistle the theme from Peer Gynt, indicating that his doppelgänger has assumed control. Finally, Beckert doesn't know that his doppelgänger has become visible to others as well until he sees reflected in the window the mark of Cain, the "M," chalked on his shoulder.
Beckert's shadow is also a projection of the doppelgänger. As Elsie's ball bounces against a billboard posting a reward for the murderer, his shadow falls across the pillar – a visual echo of the "evil man in black" (with a chopper) portrayed in the opening children's ditty.
Such images suggest two ideas: 1) Beckert is self-absorbed and involuted, and 2) Beckert can be known only through his projections. The first point is conveyed through various visual and aural images: the target in a toy window spiralling endlessly into its own centre (recalling the circles on the policemen's map); Beckert's oral fixations (eating apples and candy, drinking brandy, smoking cigarettes, biting his hand after a foiled abduction attempt); Beckert's relative silence until the last scene when he is forced to come to his own defense (that is, he can only speak to himself or to children). His projections and oral obsessions ultimately reveal and trap him: a pack of cigarettes puts the police on his trail, and his compulsive whistling alerts the beggars to his presence. He is trapped by his own "garbage" as it were (another example being the red pencil shavings). Lang repeats this theme by locating Beckert's final hiding place in a small locker full of junk – a vivid metaphor both for the meaningless disorder of his mind and for his self-confinement. Other scenes reinforce this notion: Beckert is stalked by beggars who live off the refuse of others, and he is ultimately brought to trial in an abandoned brewery by society's outcasts.
Beckert's personal chaos aggravates the chaos existing on the social plane: the apparent struggle between the police (who symbolize the Weimar Republic) and the underworld (who symbolize the Nazi organization). The real struggle, however, is between the two groups, who represent control, and Beckert, who represents lack of control. The erosion of control in postwar Germany is thus reflected in the growing similarity, not struggle between the two organizations. Lang conveys this resemblance through skillful editing and scripting and by the use of similar settings, camera angles, and images for the two groups.
Lang's portrayal of their parallel investigations emphasizes the complementary nature of the police and the underworld. The camera cuts back and forth between police conferences and underworld meetings to show the following: a gesture and remark begun by the head of the underworld are completed by the chief of police. After a safecracker declares that the police must stop looking for Beckert in the underworld, an elderly detective concludes that the murderer must be a "peaceful little family man who wouldn't hurt a fly." A burglar stands up and leans against the back of his armchair, while the scene shifts to an inspector leaning over the back of his chair. Both rooms are slowly engulfed by cigarette smoke as the meetings progress, and the people get up and wander about as the parallel discussions unfold. Identical camera angles reinforce the similarities in dialogue and settings. The ultimate exchange of identities comes near the end of the manhunt and involves the leaders of the two groups: Schränker, the head of the underworld, disguises himself as a policeman to penetrate Beckert's hiding place, and Lohmann, the chief of police, uses "illegal" methods (lies and blackmail) to determine where the underworld has taken Beckert to be "tried."
Not content to make a "talking picture" as such, Lang again uses the technical innovation of sound to complement the message of the camera. Film scholar Thierry Kuntzel has argued that, to connect the police and the underworld, Lang employs two separate chains of visual and aural clues. At first, the underworld's surveillance (visual) and the police interrogations (aural) yield no results. Then two important clues emerge: the letter to the press (visual) and the whistling in front of the blind man (aural). The letter ultimately yields two visual clues for the police – the cigarette pack and the pencil shavings – whereas the underworld narrows in on Beckert through two aural clues – Beckert's second whistling in front of the blind man of the Peer Gynt theme and the sounds he makes while trying to escape from his hiding place.
In equating the police with the underworld Lang muddies the distinction between good and evil, order and chaos, on the social plane. In M's final judgment scene, the distinctions are obscured on the personal plane as well. In his eloquent plea before the kangaroo court, Beckert changes from villain to helpless victim, both of his doppelgänger and of the criminal element of society. How can Lang deliver his fairy tale ending of a fulfilled moral law when innocence and guilt have become so hopelessly confounded? Lang's solution is to move "above" the action aurally, just as in earlier scenes he moved above the action visually – employing overhead or crane shots to imply omniscience or a divine perspective. We hear off-camera, "In the name of the law," and the action freezes. Because we do not see the speaker, higher law is implied – one that will stop the criminal elements of society and protect both innocent children and the murderous child within Beckert.
Release Date: 1931
Starring: Peter Lorre, Gustaf Gründgens, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut, Otto Wernicke, Franz Stein, Theodor Loos, Fritz Gnass, Fritz Odemar, Paul Kemp, Theo Lingen, Georg John, Karl Platen, Gerhard Bienart, Rosa Valetti, Hertha von Walther, Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur, and Rudolf Blümner
Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang
Source Citation: Henry, Catherine. "M." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 715-718.