M   Fritz Lang

M   Fritz Lang

M   Fritz Lang (Ger 1931 script Thea von Harbou) Peter Lorre; Otto Wernicke

Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 1st Oct 2023; ticket: £7.

Retrocrit: from procedure to process

Although M is described as a film about the serial killer of little girls, Lang’s movie comes across as something more than this. German playwrights Brecht and Wedekind had already established murder as a type of ‘idea’, murder as a relevant motif for probing the underbelly of society’s moral structure. The abandoned the mutant the criminals and the insane, collectively could be seen as a crazed mirror through which the distorted social and moral values of industrial capitalism could the better be discerned.  

Outcastes were twisted parodies of the institutions that feared and despised them, and from which they were banned. The slaughter of the innocent little girls is never represented as anything other than horrific but is never exploited for melodrama charge. Lang’s bold stripped filmic statements need no emotional intensifiers. Lang creates precursive images of violent death: the shadows, shadow play, the child’s balloon caught in telephone wires; Hans (Lorre as M) walking calmly by with his little victim Elsie. Shots that cut to the quick of murders that are never seen because Lang and von Harbou have woven the horror of the act on the ordinary loom of life: the everyday bustle, the daily round of chores the city’s shops and pavements.

M’s scenario is socially contextualised. Just as the English crime thriller often had a generic upper class setting, Lang and von Harbou’s movie is set within the world of ordinary working class people. The opening shot comprising a long crane of the tenement courtyard with children playing a song game whose words call up the child murderer, introduces a place where children occupy a different world from adults, chaperoned and vulnerable. It’s a culture of hard knocks where children are left to fend for themselves – a recognisable feature of all European countries at this time. The victims are working class, as is Hans who preys on them. Hans understands the weaknesses to which they are exposed and how easily they are lured, The formal juxtaposed linkages between the shots that express class experience, and the actions of the murderer suggest a Brechtian ethos working and guiding M which shapes and carries Lang’s film foreword to its next stage of development.


The usurpation of power by the underworld. The victory of the gangsters.


As the procedure of the police investigation stalls and their activity interferes with criminal enterprise, the gangsters take on the task of tracking down M. When M was being made in 1930 Germany was experiencing the huge surge in Nazi popularity culminating in their triumph in the 1930 elections. The characteristic features of their irresistible rise were violent mob anti Semitism and the Nazi pack organisation.   The Nazis understood how to exploit the fears of the ‘little people’ unradicalised working class men and woman. And as a parallel psychic track, M’s script might be read as Lang and von Harbou’s analogy of the rise of Hitler, the unleashing of class anger against a specific loathed object. The gangsters and crooks take over.   Riding on the back of the innocence and fear of the working class, Hitler’s gang organise and justify taking power and justice into their own hands. Of course I have no idea if this was in the mind of the script writers, but the material was there in Berlin all around them.

The key moment in this analogous parallelism is the chalk branding of Hans with the M sign on the back of his coat, so that he will be recognised as the Murderer. The crude M eerily pre-empts the Star of David and Juden badge that a few years later the Nazi’s obliged all Jews to wear. So that they would bare witness on their bodies the sign of their stigma. This moment of the marking of M is a stunning coup de film that precisely points to the dialectic that works through the film. From this moment the film’s logic is turned upside down and it is this anti-theatrical logic which drives the final sections of the scenario.

In the first section of the film, Hans is perpetrator and hunter. From the moment of his branding, everything changes, he becomes victim and hunted. It is a measure of Lang’s insight as a director that he understood so clearly how to use the resources of film to create a pivotal moment from which we start to see everything differently, to invoke a different order of understanding. Lang and von Harbou have already shown how society has begun break down panicked by the hunt for the child sex killer, who could be anybody. But it is in the mock court scene where Hans is tried by the gangsters that the reality of mob rule is played out.

Legal institutions have developed over centuries to protect everyone and to ensure that all are treated equally. The accused have to be tried by due process which includes evaluation of fitness to plead. The mob sweeps this all away. Whatever you are Jew or Child Killer you have only the right to be sentenced to death for what you are. There is a moment of pure Brechtian theatre as Lang’s camera pans from the serried rows of gangsters baying for Hans blood to Hans himself, alone cowered against a wooden partition. But who will speak for me, Hans asks? The camera pans upwards now and reveals behind him, on a raised level, one of the gangsters . He leans towards Hans and says: that’s my job. In this shot immediate physical threat is resolved with high farce, violence contrasts with an absurdist philosophical detachment.   Extraordinary! Pure Brecht.

The criminal attorney conducts himself with composure and makes an eloquent defence of Hans. He shows the mob that terrible though Hans may be, the man is simply not responsible for his actions. Hans cannot be guilty of murder. Of course this plea will not make the slightest difference to the rabble who want blood. The interaction, the intercutting between the calm figure for the defence and the ferocity of the mob, heightens the viewers understanding of the issues in play; we understand at last that a case can be made that Hans is not responsible for his actions. However much his acts have disturbed and horrified us, we cannot easily find him guilty of murder. And surely the screams by mobs of Nazis and proto Nazis calling for the death of Jews a few years later will have stuck in the mind of some who saw M in 1931.  

And finally Lang’s final resolution: his shot of the High Court where we can only presume that before which Hans has been tried and found guilty of the murders. At first the frame contains only the symbolic elements of the Court: the three monumental judgement seats situate on a raised dais. Breaking the tension of the frame, three judges enter; they take their seats and then each taking a black cap, places it their head. The shot cuts to black and the end of the film very quickly, allowing just enough time to see and take in the action. Lang and von Harbou are surely suggesting that gang law will soon become incorporated into state law.

In this Brechtian parable we see the dialectic forces at work shaping the film and informing our understanding of what is happening. We are lead first to be overwhelmed by antagonism and fear of Hans; but these feelings are at least challenged by the change in the script’s perspective that Hans is himself a victim and needs protection from the judgement of the mob, the vectors of hate and revenge, who exploit him for their own purposes.

Lang also sets a filmic dialectic to work in M. The interplayed tension between image and sound is a characteristic of M as film experience, But for a number of sequences Lang uses no sound, or at least only the most sparing of sound effects. Most of the film is played out with sound where the fury of dialogue works to lead and define the images. But a number of sequences Lang plays MOS, mit aus sound: mute. It is an effective device.  

When Lang like some nineteenth century magician removes the sound (like the rabbit disappeared from the hat you wonder where it has gone) it is as if a hole has opened up in reality.   The viewer is caste down into this hole as if experiencing a dream. As if Lang is saying at one level, all this life is a dream….but dream as it may be, we can still make sense of it. Lang sets us adrift in an underworld where film and dream coalesce and into these silent images we pour ourselves. I am reminded of the mute newsreels we shall see of the second world war. So in silence we watch: the panic of the crowd, the anger of the gangsters, the animal fear of Hans, the police hunt, the silence as Elsie walks away with Hans.   Silence frames these sequences. Silence frames us as we without voice cannot speak, silence frames life and our powerlessness to act to save what needs to be saved. Many things we watch in and with silence, in particular evil.

With his use of the silent moments Lang confirms his status not just as both a evoker of dreams but also as filmmaker who is a moralist, or perhaps an amoralist.

Adrin Neatrour


Author: Star & Shadow

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