An Analysis – The Unresolved Legacy of Fritz Lang’s “M”
The common misconception about our society is that now we have iPods and antibiotics we are a more progressive, forward-thinking culture. But if we only look back into our inconveniently well-recorded history, we can see that might not have always been the case. When Americans think of Germany in the early-to-mid 20th century, we tend to only remember Hitler, goose stepping, and The Rocketeer fighting that guy with the weird face on top of a giant red swastika blimp. The truth is, before the Nazi regime, Germany was one of the most important homes for forward-thinking Jewish filmmakers of the silent era. What they gave us was the Expressionist movement; dark, thematic, adult fantasies with a visual interest in jarring lighting contrasts and a kind of disorienting angular production design. Of these filmmakers, the name Fritz Lang has become iconic, as he made many emblematic Expressionist films, most famously the dystopian science fiction film Metropolis (1927). But before fleeing Nazi-occupied Germany in the ’30s to make genre movies in Hollywood, he made one of the most prescient and fascinating thriller precursors with M (1931), his moody indictment of the mob mentality. Living in a post-Psycho (1960) world of exploitation serial killer entertainment, we can only look at M and take it for granted, but even with this water being so thoroughly tread-upon, one can still recognize the complicated themes and characterizations as being anything but stock pulp archetypes.
Peter Lorre plays Hans Beckart, a child murderer who has been stalking the streets, luring young girls to their doom with the promise of candy and balloons. Even as the German townspeople have no idea who is committing the murders, Hans has left a lasting impression upon the community, stirring the parents and politicians into a maniacal frenzied manhunt, leaving no judicial stone unturned in their search. Though the story introduces our central character through the implied violence of his child-hunting, Lang is much more concerned with the public’s reaction in a time of paranoia and how society can begin to crave blood and murder just as equally as the ones they are passing judgment on. Not unlike Metropolis, M is a projection of a dystopia—a cautionary tale in which the law becomes lawless and the line between those who are being protected and those who are being oppressed blurs.
To say that M is ahead of its time is an understatement. Obviously one can draw fair comparisons from M to basically every genre thriller after it. In the realms of American film noir, a sub-genre Lang would later contribute to, many directors would borrow a lot of its production design and high-contrast chiaroscuro lighting to emphasize the cold and dangerous tones of the cities in which their stories took place. The “homme fatal,” another noir trope, could easily be traced back to Lorre’s portrayal of the almost-sympathetic but ultimately psychopathic murderer. Even decades later in schlocky horror movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), we can see elements of Lorre’s child predator character, complete with a fedora and song of warning sung in unison by the children as they play their games outside.
But perhaps more interesting is the sociopolitical implications of the film. Where the serial killer character of TV’s Dexter has become for some an almost anti-hero or surrogate executioner of the wrongdoers of society, M does not ask its audience so politely to root for the killer. Beckert is a compulsive childkiller, but the film still bravely asks if it is right for a man who has no control over his actions to be condemned to death. Unlike the vigilant revenge seeking of Dexter or Jigsaw of the Saw franchise, who seem to tap into a borderline conservative blood-lust for their enemies (the 2009 Gerard Butler film Law Abiding Citizen comes to mind as well), M points the finger back and condemns that very convention. Unlike these modern killers who may as well be the symbolic mascots for the pro-death penalty lobbyists, Lang is more interested in showing us how society will scramble to find the big scary “other” and use it as a go-ahead for witch hunting and the unjustified stretching of due process. Obviously we can see how this exact mentality would later turn Germany from a progressive art-friendly environment to a militant industry of persecution.
So even as we pat our own backs and talk about how far we have come, the political questions that Fritz Lang brings forward are still yet to be resolved. Instead, it would seem in our post 9/11 terror-phobia—an environment in which we can find relief in a weekly show about a conscientious morally self-righteous killer—M is still a challenging film. I can’t deny the entertainment value of films like Saw and TV shows like Dexter, but I can be somewhat disappointed in their bashful approach to their dark material. Both go to great lengths to justify the acts of their killers to make them more sympathetic, turning them into vigilantes on a Charles Bronson-like crusade. I find this to not only betray the point of the genre, but be morally reprehensible as well. So when I look back at the brilliance and craft of M, I am always much more interested in its central question: should we kill someone we find evil just because we think it will make us feel better?