There is perhaps no more potent a collective nightmare than that of the disappearance of children. Across all cultures and across the many centuries in which we have told stories to one another, we have returned to the narrative of a child abducted, spirited away, desecrated, destroyed, often by a dark figure who appears from the shadows and vanishes again just as quickly. These are the figures of fairytales, of urban legends, of tabloid newspapers and political scaremongering and potent parental paranoia. There is something inherently primal about it, the collision of our most human quality, that of innocent and pure childhood, and the most inhuman, the act of murder. We tell children the story of bogeymen hiding in the dark, planting a seed that will not just haunt their youth but right through to adulthood.
In classical tales, this figure was a witch or a warlock, an evil magician or some shape-shifting beast. They weren't human, because to do that to a child - we want to believe - is inhuman. Even now, when that figure has shifted from a fantastical creature in the woods to a man on the street, that man is still "other", beyond us. Labels like "monster" and "evil" have changed from a title or noun to an adjective, but still something that isn't "us". We don't want to believe that to kill a child, or worse, is something any of us could be capable of, because that would be to accept that all human beings have an inherent "evil" or monstrosity inside them, just waiting for the opportunity to reveal itself.
In the 90 years since its release, no film has captured this paranoia and horror with as much intelligence or uncompromising intellectual brutality as Fritz Lang's 1931 masterpiece 'M: Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder'. In innumerable ways, it's very easy to be rendered dumbstruck by its audacity and daring to confront aspects of human nature in a manner that still has the capacity to make you feel deeply uncomfortable. Despite being a grand master of cinema of the fantastic, from his moral fables in 'Destiny' ('Der müde Tod') (1921) to his sweeping Germanic epic 'Die Nibelungen' (1924) to his towering science fiction masterpiece 'Metropolis' (1927), that bombast and fantasy is seemingly stripped away with 'M', a vision of genuine and moral panic that feels immediate and scathing to this day.
The opening minutes are amongst the most arresting and dread-inducing in cinema. We move between two worlds. In the one, we see a mother preparing a meal for her daughter, expecting her to return from school at any moment. In the other, we see that daughter, Elsie, walking the busy streets of this German city playing with a ball. And then, as if summoned from the darkest depths of our fairytale memories, a shadow appears, an unassuming figure in a hat who whistles 'Peer Gynt' and offers a balloon. As Lang and editor Paul Falkenberg move between the two with horrifying, careful precision, we feel the slow march towards catastrophe. We know these images, now perhaps even more than audiences in 1931, because those images over the last century have been defined by the opening minutes of 'M', the images of the Brothers Grimm drawn from our darkest nightmares and enacted on the streets of a modern city, the monster emerged from myth to bring terror and devastation.
Fritz Lang made his career on fairytales. The three segments of 'Destiny' play freely within the fantastical, while 'Die Nibelungen' brings the foundational myths of Europe to life on a grand scale. He understands the language of fairytales, particularly the visual language, and that not only makes the opening sequence of 'M' so powerful, but makes his decision to immediately cast those images aside all the more so. The child murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) is not going to live in the shadows. Very soon, we'll see him in the light, and the first disorienting blow of true horror is delivered. This man isn't some sort of wicked beast, with evil written across his face. He's banal, boring... ordinary. From the ordinary comes horror, which means horror could be sitting next to you on the train, or standing next to you in the supermarket. If this man is ordinary, then how can we be safe... and how can we catch him?
This becomes the driving action of 'M', a manhunt conducted by two opposing forces. One represents the traditional values of justice, a police force ill-equipped to combat a serial killer of this scale and under constant scrutiny for its failings. The other is the criminal underworld, claiming to represent the common man but in fact desperate to stop this man to shift the public and legal scrutiny away from them. The city is a powder keg ready to explode, where anyone on the street can go from innocent bystander to mobbed and abused suspect. This imagery was certainly potent for a Germany during the rise of fascism, but survives as a statement on how easily we seek to blame and punish, driven by emotion rather than reason. The kidnapping, assault and murder of a child is a loss that can be acutely felt by a population, and one that can enrage our personal values and cloud our better judgement. In recent cinema, we see that in Thomas Vinterberg's equally shattering masterpiece 'The Hunt' (2012), but from an even more damaging direction. That rage is a spark that can become a fire, and those kinds of fires are dangerous. In that sense, the hunt for Hans Beckert is as much to quell this social unrest as it is to save the children. There is much to gain from the capturing of this beast, and saving innocent children is surprisingly not the only - or even primary - reason.
By the time Fritz Lang began production on 'M', sound had found its place in cinema, but for the acclaimed director, this was a step into the unknown, having only directed silent films. The transition from silent to sound was a tricky one, with many of the great filmmakers having established a career in the language of image finding it difficult to shift their thinking with sound. Lang has none of those problems; in fact, 'M', for all its remarkable images, is a masterclass in sound design, rendering it a story impossible to tell without it. It may even be the first truly great film of the sound era, so intrinsically is its storytelling linked to the art of sound. The way each moment moves from one to another, the sound and dialogue bleeding into each successive scene, is still quietly revelatory, a simple decision that pulls the many threads of the city together. Extended moments of silence create a sense of dissociation and tension, deliciously broken by sudden bursts of sound and chaos. Most potent of all is the signature of Beckert himself, the foreboding whistle of Grieg's 'In the Hall of the Mountain King'. This will ultimately give Beckert away to the blind balloon salesman, in a moment that celebrates the power of sound as a storytelling device. Beckert is so ordinary that he disappears into a crowd, but with this simple sound motif, he becomes distinct. The decision in the musical choice also connects us back to the storytelling roots of this kind of character, myth and legend from which a monster can emerge.
This man isn't some sort of wicked beast, with evil written across his face. He's banal, boring... ordinary.
This brings us to the final, shattering act of 'M', the point where this vast symphony of a film comes to a crashing, shocking and devastating end. The underworld of the city has come together, pooled its resources and caught the man like a rabbit in a trap. Peter Lorre shifts Beckert from an empty cypher to a man caught in deep, guttural panic. Justice needs to be served, but from who and where? From the cold intellect of the law or the passionate will of the people? And then Beckert, and Peter Lorre, and screenwriter Thea von Harbou, and Fritz Lang himself, drop their bomb on us. In an impassioned speech from Beckert, delivered by Lorre in one of the greatest moments of performance ever captured on screen, he speaks of his need to kill, not as a choice, but as a compulsion, a need to quell the chaos in his mind. He speaks with unsettling sexual clarity on the act of murdering a child, but also of the horror of it, his efforts to stop himself clashing against his need to, and of the ghosts that haunt him afterwards. "I have no control over this," he says, "this evil thing inside of me, the fire, the voices, the torment!" Hans Beckert is a paedophile, a man suffering from a staggering and uncontrollable mental illness.
The idea of paedophilia as a legitimate mental illness is still something we find hard to accept even today. In 1931, this would have been an astonishing statement, especially when spoken with this level of clarity and humanity. It is another stripping away of the fairytale. This man is not a monster or a bogeyman. He is a man suffering from a severe, dangerous mental illness, and this makes him thoroughly, unmistakably human. And in this moment of wide-eyed, animalistic desperation, Beckert throws it back on these criminals gathered to deliver justice on him. Where he has no choice in his shattering of the moral code of right and wrong, these thieves and crooks and men of violence do so consciously and willingly.
'M' is not a film that leaves you with clear answers. By the end, it's hard to know how to feel about Hans Beckert or the men who have hunted him down. It's hard to know if one should revile him or pity him or have sympathy for him. Perhaps it is all three. Perhaps it is none at all. What we are left with though is how inadequate the binary concepts of good and evil are. Human beings are infinitely complex and impossible to categorise. Beckert suffers from an illness that drives a compulsion to kill children that he cannot control, yet he stands in judgement from people who willingly choose a life of crime for their own benefit. Even the very hunt for Beckert is for selfish reasons. There's a sly wit running through 'M', but there's also a deeply unsettled view of human nature. The world in which the film was made and released was on the verge of collapse. The concept of right and wrong, good and evil was beginning to falter. It's impossible not to look at 'M' as a pre-war film, a work of art born in the early days of the Third Reich. Of course it doesn't know how to feel about humanity. The very concept was already starting to splinter.
At the beginning of the film, we see a mother preparing lunch for her daughter, expecting her home soon, unaware that her life is being violently taken from her. Lang leaves her and all the traumatised mothers behind for the majority of the film, focusing instead on the manhunt for the child murderer and a city in a state of panic. In the final shot though, he returns to that same mother. We have followed the murderer and followed the hunters, a grand and sweeping story where the moral conundrums of human nature are writ large, stripped bare, operatic and shockingly confronting. In the final moments, Fritz Lang returns to the loss - the very human loss - a loss that has, for the most part, been forgotten in the hysteria of the hunt and the search for a reason, the need for punishment and retribution. And here, the final vestiges of the fairytale are stripped away. Red Riding Hood isn't going to be cut from the wolf's belly. Hansel and Gretel aren't going to escape from the witch. We tell our children and ourselves the stories of these lost children as warnings - be good boys and girls, beware of the strangers in the woods - but those children always come back. Elsie is never coming back. None of the girls taken and murdered by Hans Beckert are coming back. This isn't a fairytale. This is the harsh reality of the world, where monsters are men and evil doesn't exist. Where there is only the endless, devastating mystery of human nature.
"This won't bring back our children. One needs to... keep closer watch... over our children... all of you!"