To christen my Netflix account, I decided to revisit the classic Fritz Lang film, M, which was featured in the Criterion section. As the film began I suddenly came to the realization that I never got past the first ten minute in my original viewing. Although I have fond memories of my university roommates and I renting both Lang’s Metropolis and M, I somehow managed to block out the fact that I had fallen asleep during the second movie of our Fritz Lang double-bill.
Fortunately I was wide awake this time around and the film ended up being quite a treat. Made in 1931, M has often been cited as one of the first films to feature a serial killer prominently in its plot. Set in a German town the film documents the mounting paranoia and hysteria that arises when someone starts abducting and murdering the local children. With the only clue being a handwritten note, the police are unable to locate any other information that would lead them to the killer. As a result, they are forced to expand their relentless search into the areas were most of the criminals dwell. The increase police presence starts to hinder criminal activity to the point where the criminals decided to conduct their own manhunt for the killer so they can get back to business.
The thing I absolutely loved about M is how it alters my view of the killer, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), constantly throughout the film. While Lang clearly states that Beckert is a sick man, there are moments in the second half of the film where I could not help but root for Beckert. Although he is a disgusting man in his own right, I could not help but feel sorry for him in the moments when the criminals were closing in on him. I am not saying that I did not want him to answer for his many crimes, but I merely wanted it to be at the hands of the law opposed to men who were villains themselves.
This reaction is clearly a result of Peter Lorre’s wonderful performance as Hans Beckert. Lorre manages to make Beckert both a sniveling childlike man and a creepy monster all at the same time. This is most evident in the mock trial scene where Beckert tries to pawn himself off as an innocent bystander who has been mistaken for the killer, only to turn around moments later and deliver an eerie speech in which he tries to explain what motivates him to kill.
Despite being made in the 1930’s M holds up surprising well. In fact it looks better, and is far more convincing, than many of the serial killer flicks released today. The debate that Lang raises the film regarding whether or not people who have skeletons in their own closets, in this case the criminals, should decide what is acceptable is still very relevant today. M does not need gore and fast edits to make Beckert menacing, just a simple but effective story that stays with you long after the film ends.