LITTLE ROCK The little girl has lost her way With hair of gold and eyes of gray Reflected in his glasses as he watches her - Randy Newman, “In Germany Before the War”I recently watched the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of M ($39.95), Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece that starred Peter Lorre as a child killer in Berlin. The movie is a touchstone, one of those classics that infects the popular imagination to the point that it’s really not necessary for most people to have actually seen it to recognize its signal moments, its symphony of grotesques and its deep black Expressionistic shadows.
M is the beginning for a few things; it was Fritz Lang’s first sound film, it was Peter Lorre’s first major role and may well be the place where film noir begins. It might be the first psychological thriller; it might be the first film that asks us to empathize with - to understand - the diseased mind of a killer.
The film, written by Lang’s then-wife Thea von Harbou, famously opens with a shot of angelic children playing in the courtyard of a Berlin apartment house, singing a tweaked version of a Weimar pop song with lyrics that allude to Fritz Haarman, a serial killer who murdered at least 27 boys and young men before his execution in 1924. The scene locates us in a sick society, where sordidness intrudes on the everyday, where placards ask “Who is the murderer?” even before we’re introduced to Lorre as the pedophile Hans Beckert, who whistles “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as he buys a balloon for little Elsie Beckmann from a blind vendor.
In the next scene, we watch as Elsie’s bourgeois mother frantically searches for her. The camera finds the balloon as the audience sees the balloon ensnared in telephone lines, and subsequently floating away.
When we finally see his face, Beckert is revealed as a soft young man, baby-faced and nervous. He is smart; he has been eluding the police for some time, although they’re starting to close in on him, using state-of-the-art investigatory techniques, such as fingerprints and handwriting analysis. The city is on edge; and increased vigilance on the part of the police has disrupted the routine of the criminal underworld. They want to capture the killer as well, and to this end they’ve enlisted the help of the city’s beggars, to watch over the children.
In the end, it’s Beckert’s habit of whistling that gives him away, as the blind vendor recognizes him. The criminals track Beckert through the streets. One of them surreptitiously marks him by drawing an “M” (for “morder,” German for “murderer”) on his own hand in chalk and clapping Beckert on the back.
Finally, he is captured, and in a remarkable scene, assigned a “lawyer” and “tried” by implacable underworld figures. Beckert pleads for understanding, delivering a monologue in which he blames his crimes on the irresistible voices in his head: “I can’t help myself! I haven’t any control over this evil thing that’s inside of me! The fire, the voices, the torment! Who knows what it is like to be me.”
M is often said to have been inspired by the real-life story of Peter Kurten, the socalled vampire of Dusseldorf, who went to the guillotine in 1932. Lang always denied this,though the similarities between Beckert and Kurten were strong enough that in some parts of Germany the film was shown under the title The Vampire of Dusseldorf.
But while the cases of Kurten (and Haarman) were almost certainly important influences on Lang, it’s interesting to note that Beckert’s panicked groveling was nothing like the cool confession Kurten ultimately gave during his trial.
Kurten calmly recounted his crimes in court, telling the prosecutors he had no conscience.
“Never have I felt any misgiving in my soul; never did I think to myself that what I did was bad, even though human society condemns it,” Kurten told the court. He put the blame for his sociopathic sadism squarely on his impoverished upbringing, his drunken brute of a father and the indignities he suffered during his many stints in German prison.
“My victims will be on the heads of my torturers,” he testified. “The punishments I have suffered have destroyed all my feelings as a human being. That was why I had no pity for my victims.”
While it’s unclear what specific horrors Beckert might have endured, Lang obviously saw him as a product of the diseased society. M is rife with contempt for the hypocrisies of German society, and it draws unmistakable parallels between the workings of the authorities and the subterranean bureaucracy of the underworld. Never facile, it doesn’t portray the authorities as buffoons - they would havecaught Beckert soon enough even if the crooks had not - but it suggests a moral equivalency, and a symbiotic relationship, between the groups.
It’s interesting to note that Lang originally called the film Murderers Among Us, a title that was banned by the rising Nazi powers because it might have been taken as a reference to them - which might have been precisely what Lang intended.
Lang used to tell a dubious, self-mythologizing story about being called into the offices of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to be informed that his 1932 film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was being suppressed by the Nazis. Goebbels, however, was so impressed by the director’s talent that he was being offered a position as the head of German film studio UFA.
“We decide who is Jewish and who isn’t,” Goebbels allegedly told the director, who was preparing to flee Germany for Paris because of his mother’s Jewish heritage. According to Lang, he turned down Goebbels’ offer and immediately fled the country, abandoning his bank accounts in the process. Meanwhile, his ex-wife von Harbou went to work for the Nazis.
While Lang did leave, he probably took most of his money with him. And he went back for a few visits before permanently leaving the country. But the story is better the way he told it, more dramatic and pointed. We shouldn’t expect a storyteller to refrain from telling stories.