The Uncomfortable Justice of Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ (1931)

“I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me, the fire, the voices, the torment!”

This is the plea of child-murdering Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), desperate for some sort of mercy in the climax of M. Pleading as much to the audience as to the kangaroo court of criminals which has captured and tried him, Beckert speaks of compulsion and illness, he wishes for help, not punishment. Is it possible to conceive of mercy and clemency in the face of such heinous crimes? Would Beckert’s execution by a vigilante mob be just-desserts, or does it make us complicit in murder?

The abhorrent act of child murder contrasted with questions of justice and punishment is M’s driving force. By focusing on a central character who commits undeniably irredeemable acts, and the citywide desire to apprehend him, M holds up a mirror to German society of the time. Director Fritz Lang was drawn to the interpretation of M as a warning on the precarious nature of the safety of children in society, and as a statement on capital punishment, made all the more potent and difficult to discuss rationally by the heinousness of Beckert’s crimes.

The opening sequence does much to convey the devastating impact of losing a child. We watch schoolgirl Elsie Beckmann’s mother (Ellen Widmann) attending to housework in her apartment, awaiting her daughter’s return from school. We then cut to Elsie herself (Inge Landgut) walking in the street, stopping to bounce a ball against a wanted poster detailing the crimes of an at-large child murderer. A shadow appears ominously against the poster and asks Elsie her name, before buying her a balloon and leading her away down the street. Framing Beckert as a shadow creates a palpable sense of other-ness and danger, an amorphous, other-worldly apparition in stark contrast to the grounded, familiar presence of Elsie’s mother, and hints at the shadow of fear and paranoia he will cast over the city as the film continues.

A silhouette of a man appears against a wall of German text.
Image courtesy of Janus Films

We return to Elsie’s mother who becomes more anxious and afraid as more and more time passes. She opens the window and repeatedly cries out for Elsie, with each shout seeming more fraught and pleading, and with each shout a cut to a new shot: an empty staircase, empty attic, Elsie’s empty and untouched plate at the dining table. This then moved to an outdoor scene with Elsie’s ball rolling out from under some bushes, and finally to the balloon Beckert bought for Elsie floating away into some overhead powerlines. We do not see Elsie’s murder, but we can deduce that something horrible has happened through the choice of images in the sequence, the spaces in which Elsie used to eat, play, and live will know her presence no longer. This allows the macabre details of the crime to be filled in via the audience’s imagination. The anguish in her mother’s voice combined with this imagery of empty spaces confirms that Elsie will never be home again. This sequence speaks directly to Lang’s aim of showing the dangers children face in society, with Elsie being snatched from the street by a seemingly kindly stranger as she journeyed home alone, and sets the stage for M’s journey into crime, compulsion and paranoia.

That sense of paranoia is underlined in the very next sequence, which takes us throughout the city. The way the sequence is edited together, with dialogue beginning in one setting and continuing in another, emphasises that this latest murder is a hot topic throughout all of society. We see the reading of a wanted poster on a train station wall by gathered, lower-class masses blend into the reading of the same passage from a newspaper by an upper-class man in a gathering with some of his fellows, in the more opulent surroundings of a men’s club. The overlapping of sound between images helps to bind the scenes together, emphasising that the concern about the murder is creeping into all levels of society. This sequence highlights the potentially paranoia-inducing effect of information, and how quickly division and mistrust can spread, resulting in almost mass-hysteria. We can see that this hysteria is not limited to any particular section of society but affects men and women of varied class and standing, with people being suspected of being the murderer simply for speaking to a child. So, we see a fearful, paranoid society with a morbid fascination with crime and death, eagerly snapping up newspapers for the latest information or gathering to get the details from a poster on a station wall (which happens to be displayed alongside advertisements for film, theatre or boxing events, seemingly positioning the murder as part of the city’s entertainment). The insatiable appetite for the lurid details and subsequent hysteria can be seen as critical of society’s susceptibility to be manipulated by sensationalist media, and a warning against the mob mentality that can materialise as a consequence of ignoring rational thought and consideration in favour of the gratification of swift and violent retribution or “justice”.

As M continues, we see that quest for justice unfold. This first comes through the actions of the police, before then moving to the criminal underworld, who conduct their own investigations after having enough of the police’s interference in their own activities. The police investigate crime scenes, use forensics and interrogate known criminals to try and find more information, while the criminals rely on their own network of beggar informants to try and crack the case. This deftly blurs the lines between the criminals and police, with both attempting to enact justice in their own ways. Scenes of the police discussing their investigation are crosscut with the criminals discussing their own, helping to blur these lines and shows similarities between these two operations, but also highlight important differences. The police tend to be shown as more methodical, while the criminals employ more forceful means. Through this juxtaposition we can see that while justice is important, it can be sought after in different ways. It is up to the audience to determine which methods they deem acceptable, but for me M’s treatment of investigation and justice underlines the importance of the law not infringing on the rights of its citizens and becoming criminal itself.

A black, gloved hand appears on top of a map.
Image courtesy of Janus Films

The police are shown to be no angels themselves however, sometimes straying outside the law to get results. We can see this in the aftermath of the criminals breaking into a mostly empty office building looking for Beckert. The police are alerted to the break-in before they can find him and the criminals scatter, but a thief named Franz (Friedrich Gnaß) is captured and taken into custody. At the station, police inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) lies to Franz, implying that he is suspected of homicide, in order to provoke him into divulging information about why the criminals broke into the building, as nothing had been stolen. When we contrast Lohmann’s behaviour with Schranker’s rough treatment of a night watchman at the office building (torturing him for information), there are obvious parallels here. Both the criminals and police are willing to bend the rules in their pursuit of Beckert, although the criminals clearly bend further than the police do. This somewhat blurs the lines between the two, and serves to highlight the care required to remain within the law while showing the lengths some will go to achieve their notion of justice.

Fear, hysteria and paranoia build, and a sense of claustrophobia begins to invade as the film progresses, with the empty spaces of the opening sequences becoming less and less frequent, being replaced by crowds and enclosed spaces. The framing of some shots have this sense of claustrophobia too, for example when Beckert is looking in a shop window and his face is framed in a ring of knives, we see him joined in that same ring of knives by a little girl. This framing, combined with his eye-bulging, yearning reaction to the girl’s presence, seems to trap Beckert. It speaks to a claustrophobic, inescapable compulsion for Beckert, emphasising the idea that perhaps he cannot be held responsible for his crimes, but rather is a supremely ill individual in need of urgent mental care. He is trapped by his damaging compulsions, embodied on screen in this shot through the ring of knives that surround him. By the film’s end, he will be trapped physically too.

A man looks through a shop window. He wipes something from his mouth.
Image courtesy of Janus Films

Nowhere is this claustrophobia more keenly felt than in the kangaroo court sequence in the latter stages of the film, where Beckert is captured and taken to a dark, underground room filled with criminals who sit in judgement of him during a sham trial. Beckert pleads his case with the assorted criminals, and again the lines are blurred, with Beckert jumping between defending his own actions and throwing accusations of his own at those who sit in judgement of him. Beckert himself declares the criminals have no right to judge, as they choose to break the law and show pride in their illegal acts, whereas he is compelled to act as he does, trying to explain the monster within which takes hold of him. The editing and arrangement of the characters in this sequence puts the audience’s focus and sympathy on Beckert. The “trial” takes place in a cellar, with what could easily be 100 people seated on one side of the room acting as prosecution and jury, and Beckert on the other, alone but for an unenthusiastic man acting as his “defence counsel”. The shots are of longer duration for Beckert, with only him in the frame as he pleads, whereas the assorted criminals get much less time in their shots which are filled with bodies. This means we as an audience cannot give characterisation to the criminals as they appear as an indistinct mob of people, rather than as individuals given time to air their concerns, and thus their exclamations seem hysterical and rabid. This section of the film most directly deals with capital punishment, painting the ‘prosecution’ as a baying angry mob, bloodthirsty and cruel, unable to be swayed. The contrast between weak and pleading Beckert and the bloodthirsty ‘prosecution’ serves to build sympathy for Beckert, to be seen as someone to be pitied rather than exterminated.

Instead of getting rid of problematic characters through violence, M seems to direct us to a path of understanding and treatment through its focus on the compulsive nature of Beckert’s crimes and the juxtaposition of this illness with the assortment of unabashed and willful criminals who stand in judgement before him.

Four men sit at a bench, lit by a lightbulb attached to a wooden stick. A full audience of people sit behind them.
Image courtesy of Janus Films

The kangaroo court reaches its climax with Beckert’s defence counsel asking for restraint, and to turn him over to the authorities for punishment. It is an appeal for justice over revenge, made to the audience just as much as it is to the “jury”. Can we act mercifully, in the face of such abhorrent acts? In answer to this, a woman in the crowd asks those assembled to consider the torture and anguish that the mothers of these murdered children would have gone through, sending the crowd into a frenzy, calling for Beckert’s execution. Beckert’s defence exclaims this would be an act of murder, but the crowd is not to be reasoned with. It seems the appeal for justice has failed, trumped by an appeal to emotion. The police arrive just at this moment however, and the audience is spared any further death.

So, rather than ending with violent, vigilante justice, the film instead ends in a courtroom. Elsie’s mother, dressed in black, sits at a bench with two other black-clad, weeping mothers. She states that none of this (the justice of the courts, or the vigilantes) will bring back their children, and tearfully implores us instead to keep a closer watch on the children. Their safety is paramount.

It can be hard to stomach, but some clemency and restraint is necessary, even when seeking to punish someone for crimes of the worst kind. In that regard, M gives us a lot to think about. The nature of compulsion, the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, the meaning of “justice”. It serves as a warning, showing what can become of unchecked fear and paranoia, and forces us to consider the difficulty in staying within the law in pursuit of justice. Ultimately, it shows us just how unpalatable vigilante justice can be, even when dealing with the most heinous crimes imaginable.

If M is a film that sounds intriguing to you, or even if you’ve seen it before and just want to watch it again, it’s available to watch in full, for free, here:

Header image courtesy of Janus Films