Are We Wrong To Forgive A Murderer? M (1931)

In 1931, Fritz Lang directed a thriller film called M, with a German subtitle Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder, i.e. A City Searches for a Murderer. In 1930, when Lang placed an advert that his next film is dealing with a child murderer, he began receiving threatening letters, and was banned to shoot the film in a studio of his choice. He was accused of spreading anti-Nazi propaganda with the movie because the original title was Mörder unter uns (Murderer Among Us), but when he clarified the plot, he was allowed to shoot it outside Berlin.

This is the first major role of Peter Lorre playing the role of a serial killer of children named Hans Beckert. Before M, he had participated mostly in comedic roles. Sound equipment was expensive at the time, so one third of the movie is silent, actually providing a fitting eerie atmosphere. Unlike in the modern Hollywood films, we see the killer right at the beginning, looking at himself in the mirror. His Hyde shadow is staring at him from the mirror while he’s making grotesque faces, symbolizing the monster inside of him. We only see a shadowed part of the Jekyll Becker, signaling that the inner mirror monster dominates over his persona. Beckert is constantly whistling the Peer Gynt tune, so like a Wagnerian leitmotif, we are constantly reminded of his presence. Remember the shark theme from Jaws (1975)?

Hans Beckert staring at the mirror, facing his inner monster.
Hans Beckert staring at the mirror, facing his inner monster.

The murders happen off-screen, as it was the case in the classical Greek tragedy, where such unforsaken atrocities weren’t played on stage. Little Elsie Beckmann is coming home from school. Becker notices her, and Lang emphasizes the poor girl’s innocence by overwhelming the frame with Becker’s shadow, in a manner of classical German expressionism. After all, his shadow is what has become of him. He whistles his Peer Gynt tune, and we know something awful is going to happen, comparable to Harry Powell singing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms in Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1952). Becker buys her a balloon from a blind beggar. In an almost pastoral but urban scene, it is easy to forget we are dealing with the murder of a little girl. But Lang reminds us of the terrible act by soon showing her empty place at the dinner table. We see her balloon caught in the telephone lines. We realize that, like that balloon, she is no longer a part of this world.

Classical German expressionism often plays with lighting. A menacing shadow of a killer dominates the frame. Compare with Night of the Hunter.
Classical German expressionism often plays with lighting. A menacing shadow of a killer dominates the frame. Compare with Night of the Hunter.

When Beckert tries to kill again, a blind man recognizes his tune, and tells the other beggars who spread themselves around the city streets to catch him. Paranoia, shadows and fear are the only characteristics of Berlin at that time. Interestingly, such an organization of beggars really did exist in that period. One man chalks M on Beckert’s overcoat to mark him. Beckert again sees it in a mirror, because only in the mirror he can see the true monster and murderer. Some critics consider this a premonition of what the Nazis will do to Jews a decade later, and Peter Lorre playing Hans Beckert, coincidentally, was of Jewish origin. No wonder why Joseph Goebbels was said to have described the film as “fantastic, free of phony humanitarian sentiments”. According to Lang, who was half-Jewish, after Hitler’s regime banned his film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, he was asked to come to Goebbels’s offices. Goebbels apologized for the ban, but he was so impressed by his abilities that he offered him the position of head of the film studio UFA . During that conversation, Lang decided to flee the country.

M stands for Mörder, i.e. Murderer.
M stands for Mörder, i.e. Murderer.

Thus the manhunt begins, but it’s not the police that’s after Beckert, it’s the opposite – the criminals. A kangaroo court is formed in an abandoned distillery. An improvised jury of the society’s worst has already reached its decision even before the trial has begun. Beckert pleads to be handed over to the authorities, but they refuse. He isn’t able to tell right from wrong, standing like a helpless child in front of animals, turning the tables. Lang asserted that he cast real criminals for the court scene, and that 24 cast members were arrested during filming.

Hans Beckert in a kangaroo court.
Hans Beckert in a kangaroo court.

Hans Beckert: It’s there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently, but I can feel it there. It’s me, pursuing myself! I want to escape, to escape from myself! But it’s impossible. I can’t escape, I have to obey it. I have to run, run… endless streets. I want to escape, to get away!

And I’m pursued by ghosts. Ghosts of mothers and of those children… they never leave me. They are always there… always, always, always!, except when I do it, when I… Then I can’t remember anything. And afterwards I see those posters and read what I’ve done, and read, and read… did I do that?

Lang uses the plot for a bigger indictment of the society at the time. Nightclubs. Perversion. Gluttony. Alcohol. As for the kangaroo court arguments, we are still having the same discussions almost a hundred years later. Peter Lorre’s brilliant performance is modern because it’s happening all the time in front of our eyes. If we observe the atrocities and injustice still happening in our society today, we might find ourselves even having some sympathy for the devil.



Garnham, Nicholas (1968). M: A Film by Fritz Lang. Simon and Schuster.

Jensen, Paul M. (1969). The Cinema of Fritz Lang. A. S. Barnes & Co.

McGilligan, Patrick (1997). Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. St. Martin’s Press.

Wunrow, Zachary (2013). Power and Presence in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Inquiries 5(6):1-1.

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