I have grown a bit bored of the crime genre. The media landscape is flooded with podcasts, documentaries, films, and books all dedicated to murder, serial killers, and true crime. The last straw was the film, The Little Things, released earlier this year starring Denzel Washington, Jared Leto, and Rami Malek’s crazy eyes. It tried so hard to recreate the vibe of great shows like Mindhunters and True Detective, which showed that those who investigate the crazy can end up going crazy themselves, and instead, was a stylish-looking snooze fest. Shows like Hannibal and Dexter romanticize serial killers in interesting ways but I can't help but ask myself, "Should I be rooting for this person?" Even True Detective tried to ask big philosophical questions but it mostly got lost in its ideas rather than answer any of them. I was ready to give up on all things crime until recently, when I sat down to watch the 1931 German film, M. This 90-year-old thriller reminded me that the crime genre can be entertaining and thought-provoking. Its ending deals with issues like the culpability of the insane and society’s trust in government, better than anything I’ve seen in the modern crime genre. Its comments on these issues in 1931 are haunting, given Germany’s history at that time.
The film takes place in Berlin, Germany. The city is on edge after a string of children go missing. The film opens with children playing in the streets, singing a sick song about a “nasty man in black,” coming to get them. Parents wait anxiously for their children to return home from school. We see children exiting a school, some leave with their parents, while others walk home alone. A young girl walks alone, bouncing a ball on a wall with a poster of the names of two children still missing. A shadowy figure begins to talk to her. We then see a mother preparing a table for dinner, looking at a clock, waiting for her child to come home. She sees other children coming home and asks them if they have seen her daughter; they say no. As she waits, we see the young girl with this mysterious man buying her a balloon and walking her around the city. These two scenes: the mysterious man with the young girl and the waiting mother, are edited in such a way that shows them happening at the same time. The viewer at this point knows that something bad will happen. This is confirmed seconds later when we see the balloon floating off into the sky and the ball bouncing away with no one going after it. We see nothing and yet we know this man is our killer. The director, Fritz Lang, leaves it up to the audience to imagine the grim details. He is more interested in showing us the aftermath of these events. We watch the killer writing an anonymous letter to the newspapers taking credit for the murders and promising to do it again. The police try to gather clues from the letter like fingerprints and handwriting analysis, all standard procedural crime narratives. As the investigation continues, the people of Berlin are restless, they begin to blame one another. Any man caught conversing with a small child is labeled a suspect and publicly attacked. The film builds this tense atmosphere between the public who are frightened and the local police and commissioners desperate to find answers.
In another scene where we see two different events take place at the same time, the local authorities are trying to figure out how to move their investigation forward, while local crime bosses try to figure out how to keep the authorities out of their business. With the police leaving no stone unturned, a local brother is raided and the crime bosses are also trying to figure out their next move. In these scenes, we go back and forth between the authorities and the crime bosses, both stumped on how to handle the situation. The authorities decide to investigate recently released asylum patients, while the crime bosses decide to create a manhunt using the local homeless population. The police come close after they check the records of a man named Hans Beckert and search his house while he is not home. They discover evidence that he wrote the anonymous letter and wait for his return. This race between the authorities and gangsters to find the killer is thrilling to watch and you don’t know who you should root for.
Hans Beckert’s fate seems almost certain as he walks the streets of Berlin. We see him notice a young girl looking at toys in a window and his face changes. He begins to look worried and troubled. It is almost like the monster within is creeping out and he is trying to keep it in. A groundbreaking technique this movie uses with Han’s Beckert’s character is a Leitmotif. This is a short musical sound or song that is associated with a person, place, or idea. In the film, Beckert’s character whistles: “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Greig. This recognizable tune is whistled by the mysterious man at the beginning of the film, confirming Beckert is our child killer. The use of the Leitmotif builds the horror and dread of the film, knowing that when Beckert begins to whistle it, he is going to do something horrible. It also leads to his demise as he befriends another young girl and begins to whistle this tune. It is recognized by the blind homeless man who sold him the balloon earlier in the film. He tells his counterparts and they begin to track the man. They follow him from afar and in an attempt to not lose him, one of the men writes an M on his hand with chalk and brushes up against the back of his coat. M for Murderer.
What happens next is an interesting chase sequence in which Beckert runs into an office building to hide from his pursuers. The beggars call the crime bosses for help and they rush to the scene. They tie up the doormen and torture them for information. This leads them to find Beckert, but one of the doormen trips the alarm system and they must rush to escape before the police arrive. They take Beckert to an undisclosed location. The police arrive just as the criminals are leaving and in the frenzy, the police capture one of the gangsters. The police think the gangsters came to rob the place. They use questionable interrogation techniques to get the gangster to admit that they were searching for the child killer and he reveals where they take him. It is interesting how the film shows that even though the gangsters find the child killer they torture the doormen to do so. They are criminals so this can be expected. The police, however, are shown to be just as bad with their interrogation. This highlights a real breakdown in society as a whole. Those in authority are bad and the citizens are bad. The criminals don’t trust authority and the authorities don’t trust the public. They say so earlier in the film when trying to figure out how to hunt for the child killer. They call the citizens stupid and unwilling to help in any tangible way.
The most fascinating part of this film is its ending. Hans Beckert is taken to an abandoned factory by the gangsters, who have set up what is essentially a Kangaroo court. The judges are the gangsters, behind them are other criminals and citizens. They even give him his one defense attorney. The gangsters and citizens of Berlin have so little faith in their government that they instead take the law into their own hands. Beckert demands to be taken to the authorities, but everyone just laughs at him. They demand answers from him. He admits to the killings and defends his actions by saying that he can’t help himself. In an impassioned monologue, he talks about trying to quiet the voices in his head that urge him to kill and the only way to stop them is to, in fact, kill. In his monologue, he berates the criminals before reminding them that they choose to break the law while he, “has no control over this evil thing that is inside me.” His defense counsel agrees and recommends his client be handed over to the authorities. He tells the “court” that he belongs in an asylum. The court of criminals and citizens will have none of it, they laugh at Beckert and tell him that being handed over to the authorities would be pointless. He will be fed three meals a day and eventually let out on good behavior. Mothers in the crowd remind Beckert that he is a monster. The crowd demands death right here and now. They yell and scream at him, the looks on their faces are that of a mindless mob. Just as it seems Beckert is done for, we see a hand rest on his shoulder. We see the people in the crowd begin to raise their hands silently. The police have come to serve their justice. The film ends with real judges in a courtroom about to render their verdict. We see three mothers of the missing children sitting in the court crying and admitting none of this will bring their children back.
M is already considered a classic film for its use of tracking shots and Leitmotif. It is the gold standard for what a crime thriller could and should be. What’s most interesting about M to me is that this German film deals with the idea of distrust in authority in 1931, when just two years later Hitler would come to power. When people lose faith in the powers that be, they will accept radical ideas that on the surface seem like the right choice. The history of the rise of Nazisim in Germany is much more complicated, but this film left me with chills just thinking about that aspect. The lack of faith in authority, especially in the police, is prevalent today more than ever with the Black Lives Movement and the recent collective sigh of relief Americans took after the verdict of the Derrick Chauvin trial. The amount of Americans who still believed the last presidential election was rigged is concerning. Conspiracy theories have become as American as baseball. M transcends the crime genre to hold a mirror to societies from yesterday and today and asks the question, "What is justice?"
Sahil is a full-time student at Dutchess Community College and a part-time cinephile. He has been known to quote the film Step Brothers word for word, and he likes water to be at room temperature.