A parent’s worst nightmare becomes reality in Fritz Lang’s 1931 German thriller M, when a little girl is murdered and her case remains unsolved. Hans Beckert—the serial killer played by Peter Lorre—is on the loose in Berlin, leaving the city restless as mass hysteria manifests. Lang utilizes the viewer’s eye, mind, and emotions to convey the distressed atmosphere as the audience is guided through the criminal investigations and citywide manhunt to catch Beckert and bring him to justice. Considered to be one of the first film noir’s, Lang’s M has it all—use of sound, magnificent cinematography, superb acting, and a rollercoaster ride of emotions: an archetype for psycho-thrillers.
Elsie Beckmann’s mother anxiously awaits her daughter’s arrival home from school for lunch. The caws of her cuckoo clock break up the silence: a reminder that time is passing by. Lang’s use of sound—and lack thereof—builds the suspense, as neighboring girls arrive home safely while Elsie is no where to be found. Her mother calls for her down the flights of stairs in their apartment building and out the window to the streets below, but all to no avail. Beckert is seen confronting Elsie on her walk home. His shadow is cast upon a WANTED poster for previous crimes that reads, “Who is the murderer?” The mise-en-scene allows us to consider the chilling scenario of what is to come.
Beckert whistles his trademark tune—Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”—while he treats his prey, Elsie, to a balloon purchased from a blind street-vendor. It’s clear Beckert’s intentions are bad but, rather than showing any acts of violence, Lang takes advantage of a montage to suggest Elsie’s final moments. Her empty plate is seen from a lunch she never made it to, her ball rolls into the frame and stops within the grass, and the balloon she was just gifted drifts high above, caught in the telephone lines. All backed by dead silence, the ambiguity allows our minds to construct the gruesome details.
The anxiety around town is at an all-time high as the news of Elsie’s death spreads. People turn on one another. Everyone and anyone are of the accused. An innocent old man is harassed by his neighbors after he is seen telling a little girl the time. No one can be trusted. The criminal investigations continue with raids of the underworld. The heat on the streets is bad for business, and the crooks decide to take the matters of catching the killer into their own hands. Lang uses intercuts of the police congregating to devise a plan for their investigations, while at the same time the criminal bosses meet to work out their scheme. The juxtaposition of images makes it hard to decipher whom the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are. Both sides are coalesced to catch a killer.
A homicide detective, Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), gains some headway when he recognizes a cigarette brand found in Beckert’s apartment that links to a past crime. “Ariston…? Ar–is–ton? AR–IS-TON!” The camera shifts each time Ariston is said, with an increased close up: it’s clear Lohmann is onto something. Just when the cops think they have their suspect at arms reach with their new evidence, Beckert’s attempt at taking another little girl’s life fails when the blind street-vendor, who he once purchased a balloon from with Elsie, recognizes his distinct whistle. A boy tracks down Beckert and, using chalk, draws an M on his hand, which he slaps onto Beckert’s back as he walks past, pretending to slip on an orange peel. Startled, Beckert jumps—he thought he was finally caught. He is unaware of the M marked on his back, designating him as the murderer, until the little girl he is with notices it. Beckert looks at his reflection in a shop’s window and stares at the M—his facial expression clearly suggests that his biggest fear has become a reality. The people know what he has done!
It is Peter Lorre, with his doe-eyes and magnificent range of expression, who truly makes M into the thriller-masterpiece it is. Though Lorre is not shown very frequently throughout the film, it’s his presence that is dreadful and can easily be considered one of the greatest portrayals ever. Prior to the symbolic M being slapped on Beckert’s back, Lorre gives the audience a glimpse into his character’s never-ending battle with his tainted mind. As he gazes into a shop’s window display of silverware, he spots a little girl in the reflection—brilliantly framed in knives. Beckert’s reaction shows that a flip has been switched inside his mind, as he turns from civilian to predator. Lorre masters his role—clinching his face, while his eyes roll to the back of his head, fighting his decision to pursue the little girl who has now walked away. His face turns dark and malevolent as he moves to stalk his prey, whistling per usual. Beckert’s plans to kill are cut short when the little girl turns a corner and runs into the safety of her mother’s arms. Disgusted with himself and itching at his fists, Beckert walks across the street to a café and orders two shots of cognac, which he downs in seconds. Flustered, he puts his hands to his head and whistles— trying to find some peace within. This sequence is very revealing as to how sick Beckert is indeed, which Lorre makes crystal clear—even more so in the final scenes of the film as he cries out in his defense, “I can’t help it! I can’t escape myself!”
These powerful moments in the film work to challenge common perceptions of the mentally ill and bring room for discussion on such an important subject. In today’s world, mental illness is still not dealt with to the extent it should be and, as we see from continuous tragedies, disorders are widespread. Lorre’s role in M, and Lang’s ability to capture and display the emotions involved through cinematic techniques and sound, truly deliver a timeless classic that makes a strong case for better understanding humanity as a whole.