In 1920s Berlin, the police department and criminal underworld attempt to find, capture, and remove from society a serial killer of young girls.
Writer(s): Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Co.(s): Nero-Film AG
Adapted from: (Newspaper article) by Egon Jacobson
The Story on the Screen
The film M presents a sweeping tale of events that revolve around an attempt to identify, capture, and prosecute a serial killer of children in 1920s Berlin. The attempt is rendered unique by the fact that it involves not only the police but elements of organized crime, who work separately from each other (and for different purposes) to achieve the identical goal regarding the killer.
At the start of the film, the killer—a nondescript Berliner named Hans Beckert, whose identity is unknown to the authorities—has already murdered several young girls and is infamous enough that the children of the city have contrived a playground game that makes reference to his exploits and employs a disturbing rhyme that parents find chilling. When he lures a young girl named Elsie Beckman into a park on her way home from school and murders her there, he sets in motion a flurry of activity that marshals the forces of the police and criminal underworld (working separately) to find and capture him and bring him to justice.
When a nondescript Berliner named Hans murders a young girl, he sparks an all-out effort to bring him to justice.
Elsie is not related to anyone of social or political importance. Nevertheless, her murder serves as a final straw to intensify societal pressure to find and capture the killer.
On the law-and-order side of the equation, the pressure originates at the highest levels of government and is applied to the Police Commissioner who, in turn, channels it to his subordinates, including Inspector Karl Lohmann, a man who is well-acquainted with the criminal elements in the city. And when searches, interviews, and the latest criminology techniques fail to lead to the killer's identification and capture, Lohmann and his forces resort to raiding locales that they know to be frequented by criminals, hoping to find the killer among their ranks.
The raids, in turn, prompt a response from the city's major crime figures—not against the police, whom they consider to be annoying foes, but toward the identification, capture, and elimination of the serial killer, so that the police will end the campaign of harassment and allow the underworld to return to business as usual. As long as the killer is on the loose, and the police continue their heightened activity, criminal enterprises across the city will suffer, and the crime bosses will lose their ability to pay off the political contacts that allow them to operate largely unhindered.
The underworld succeeds in cornering and capturing Hans while eluding the police.
Thanks in part to the unconventional resources at their disposal, including ranks of beggars who can be recruited to keep their watchful eyes on the streets, the underworld figures succeed in identifying, cornering, and capturing Hans—all of which must be performed in a clandestine fashion so that they themselves are not confronted by the police. But rather than kill him on the spot, they remove him to an abandoned distillery where he is subjected to a kangaroo court overseen by their leader, "The Safecracker," and prosecuted for his murderous acts, which they declare to be monstrous. And although the verdict of guilt is virtually certain from the outset, the arguments presented during the trial raise important issues regarding morality, mental illness, criminal compulsion, and the nature of justice itself.
Behind the Scenery
Like The Battleship Potemkin (1925), M does not contain a main character. It does, however, contain three primary characters who represent the three different perspectives on the attempt that lies at the heart of the film—Inspector Lohmann, The Safecracker, and Hans Beckert. And interestingly, the efforts of each of these characters may be said to manifest the three different types of intent.
Like The Battleship Potemkin, M does not possess a main character.
Inspector Lohmann, for example, pursues identification and capture of the killer because it is his job to do so. And like most characters who are involved in official investigations, his efforts are driven by the intent to gain—in this case, not only knowledge that does not currently exist (identity of the killer) but apprehension of the killer himself.
The Safecracker, on the other hand, leads the underworld efforts to identify and capture the killer for his own reasons, which stem from the need to regain a social environment free of heightened police activity and conducive to a prosperous criminal enterprise. He and his underworld cohorts do not get involved in the investigation until they see the profitability of their businesses decline and trace the source of the decline to the killer.
Although Hans' murders can be considered short-term gain attempts, his primary type of intent is that of keeping.
And although Hans' obsessive sickness leads him to commit the murders that lay the groundwork for the story—and each of the murders on its own can be considered the result of a short-term gain intent—as the pursued character in the main action of the story, he serves as a keep character whose well-being depends on keeping his identity secret. In fact, his arrogant confidence in his ability to do so leads him to write a taunting letter to a newspaper at the start of the film, and his terror of being captured when he finds himself cornered is built upon the fear of failing to keep his freedom and the secrecy of his identity.
In an abstract sense, the City of Berlin is the main character.
In an abstract sense, if there is a main character in the story, it is the City of Berlin itself. And the story may be said to involve its overall efforts to rid itself of a murderous infection and return to health—which represents a regain intent. In this context, the issue of the story may be said to involve "ridding oneself (in this case, society) of a murderous infection to restore (regain) its health and safety." And because the storytellers appear to condone the efforts of those involved in the pursuit and capture of Hans, the proposition may be stated:
- One should attempt to rid oneself (or society) of a murderous infection, because success in the attempt will result in restoration (regaining) of health and safety.
As Hans' trial before the underworld figures approaches what appears to be a violent climax, the police raid the distillery and capture both Hans and the criminals before whom he is being tried. And although it is revealed to us-the-audience that Hans is eventually tried and found guilty in an official court of law, we are not made aware of his sentence—specifically, whether he is jailed, sentenced to death, or remanded to the custody of mental health professionals. But the fact that he is removed from society renders the efforts of the City of Berlin successful. And our desire to see the children of the city safe again from his predatory acts renders us-the-audience pleased; therefore, M may be said to constitute a succeed/pleased story.
It is interesting to note that the director of M, Fritz Lang, is known to have publicly stated that he intended the film to serve as a warning to mothers about the risks of neglecting their children—a warning issued in response to a rash of serial killings in Germany and stated outright by Elsie Beckman's mother at the end of the film. But the inciting incident of the film, Elsie's seduction and murder by Hans, does not result from active neglect on the part of her mother. Rather, Elsie encounters Hans incidentally on her way home from school, where her mother is waiting with a hot meal ready to be served. And even Frau Beckman's laissez-faire attitude toward the children's rhyme at the beginning of the film does not stem from an attitude of neglect. It arises, instead, from her belief that as long as the children can be heard, they can be assumed to be safe.
Contrary to the contention of the director, the film is not about "neglect." It is about ridding society of a murderous infection.
Even if the inciting incident in M were directly related to "neglect" (which it is not), the story could not be accurately described thematically as being about the issue of "neglecting one's children." All of the major actions in the film are, instead, related to the pursuit (or flight from the danger of pursuit) of a social infection (the serial killer). Consequently, the film M represents a case in which the motivation for creating and telling the story is disconnected from the theme that the finished story conveys.
So although M stands as a groundbreaking film, and one of the first films in the genre of "film noir," its purported theme, as declared at the end by Frau Beckman, does not align with the actual theme of the film.