To a modern audience, narratives of child murder, kidnapping and molestation are nothing new. From the ongoing Jimmy Saville investigation, to the disappearance of Madeleine Mccann, to recent allegations of paedophile rings operating out of Westminster, our screens and newspapers are bombarded on an almost daily basis with all range of terrifying stories. And cinema is no exception to this rule.
Arguably one of the first and finest films to tackle such content is M, a German Drama film from the early 30’s, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Peter Lorre. Its lead story is about a young girl (Elsie Beckmann), who is kidnapped and killed by a child serial killer. The film’s subtext follows Berlin’s criminal underworld, and the efforts it goes to protect its identity and movements as an investigation unfolds.
It opens with the young girl in question innocently bouncing a ball down the street, unaware that a child murderer is lurking in the shadows and waiting to pounce. She is then approached by the imposing figure of Hans Beckert- introduced to us as a stooping silhouette cast against a ‘wanted’ poster- who whistles in his stride and offers to buy Elsie a balloon from a street vendor. Playing the role of Beckert, as child murderer, is the hugely influential, Peter Lorre.
A featured player in Hollywood crime and mystery films, Lorre has made appearances in giants like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942), where he’s invariably been type casted as a dangerous foreigner or sinister criminal. Noted for his bulging eyes, high pitched voice and expressive acting, he’s proved a great inspiration to comedians and cartoonists alike, and even served as the caricature face to a number of Warner Bros cartoons down the years. In M we witness Lorre at his most menacing, as he prowls the streets, desperate not to be caught, but all to willing to give in to his murderous impulses.
In the wake of Elsie’s disappearance, Beckert sends in a letter in to a local newspaper expressing anger about his crimes, which in turn leads to a full blown investigation coming under way. As the police work round the clock to apprehend him, local underground crime heads worry that their affairs will be meddled in and decide to carry out their own investigation. As the police analyse fingerprints and handwriting, dig around in bushes and summon identification cards, the city’s mob bosses employ beggars as watchman to the streets. Although operating on opposite sides of the law, both the police and the mob are united in their totalitarian efforts to key the city under lock and key- for the mob, “every square foot [of the local area] must be watched..From now one no child takes a step forward without being warned”, while for the police, a search must be carried out on “any house, apartment or backyard”.
Supporting the long drawn out investigation is some excellent slow and contemplative camerawork, which hovers over the city from a birds eye view and patiently pans potential evidence that is brought in and laid out for scrutinising. Aerial shots of the city too help to create a pervasive sense of chaos as members of the public are shipped in for questioning on the back of trucks by police who show little faith in their innocence or reliability as eyewitnesses.
The police investigation leads us to a hotel apartment where Beckert is said to reside, but hot on their heels are the mob who beat them to the chase by the spying out Beckert on a street corner talking to a young girl. Their tip off comes from the same blind street vendor who sold Beckert a balloon at the time of Elsie’s disappearance and remembers the whistle he chanted.
The whistle of choice here is Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King– a classical composition from a 19th century Norwegian play about trolls and goblins. Now acknowledged as the Alton Towers theme tune, it’s a fitting soundtrack to the dark and twisted fantasies of the suitably gargoyle like creature that Lorre plays in this flick.
Following the whistle on the air, the mob’s trusty beggar union track Beckert to an office block, where he hides out in attic. Desperate in their efforts to seize him, the mob break in and kill night watchmen patrolling the block, wherein they are later implicated for murder and burglary by the police.
Once captured, Beckert is taken to the basement of an old distillery, where before a panel of supposed law experts he is condemned for his crimes and told he should be done away with. In a moving monologue, Beckert pleads with panel to take pity on him, claiming he has no control over his actions and is a slave to his impulses. He later adds that the accusing panel are the real criminals, on account of their breaking safes, cheating at cards and refusing to learn a proper trade. The mob’s efforts to then kill Beckett are then thwarted as police step in on scene, seize him and put him before a real trial. While Beckett’s final sentence is never revealed, the concluding cuts of some of the victims mothers crying in court, give the impression that justice will be had, one way or other, even if it doesn’t bring the dead children back to life.
In it’s handling of crime and punishment, M raises a number of crucial questions about freedom and democracy. While mob justice never prevails, it asks should it adhere to notions of fairness and decency? Many critics have noted that through its understanding mob psychology, M foreshadowed the later uprise of the Nazi Party and their subsequent acts of brutality and despotism.
Visually, it employs some great surrealist compositions, including a winding spiral staircase , eerie shop display fronts containing dancing puppets, a hypnotic wheel toy and bouncing luminous arrow, not to mention the perversely crafted balloon figures in the shape of children.
Critically, M is important for a number of reasons: Fritz Lang’s first sound film, Peter Lorre’s first major role, and arguably the foundation from which all later film noir would follow. Famous for other such films as, Metropolis (1927), The Big Heat (1953), Scarlet Street (1945), Lang considered M to be his favourite title, and maintains he made it to “to warn mothers about neglecting children”.
For all its storytelling, innovation and influence, M is undoubtedly a film before it’s time and continues to strike a chord with us today. Becker is, for all intents the purposes, that child serial killer that still walks our streets; that beguiling, baby faced criminal that disappears out of sight, all for but a whistle as to their whereabouts. And however unnerved by the film you might be, there’s just there’s no denying it’s worth as a timeless classic.