M (1931) and the society at war with itself
Professor of German and Film & media, Anton Kaes, discuses, to some extent, butchery, madness, and the loss of innocence in his article on Fritz Lang’s cult film “M.” This seemingly simple letter for the film title is suspect. Consider how, according to Professor Kaes, “M was not among Germany’s top ten features of 1931 [and] the film received mixed reviews… [with] only modest box-office returns” (pg.138), yet despite being overshadowed by the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism, M is richly historic and symbolic in the midst of its own history, but also as a time piece standing on the precipice of the emerging National Socialist Party. Professor Kaes “unmoors” M from its historical base in which in the film was emerged and discusses our own obsession with serial murder, the historic crisis in Germany during the development of the film, and what M represents for us today.
M is filled with shadows that cut against the backdrop of “be-on-the-look-out” posters on walls notifying that there is a child murderer amongst the people and high angle shots showing a circle of children singing an eerie nursery rhythm mixed with silent stills and unnerving echoes of a mother’s anguished calls for her baby girl to come home for lunch, to come up the empty stair case; but Elsie Beckmann never comes home. Once invoice is lost, it can never be returned. According to historian Kaes, “anyone who has seen Fritz Lang’s M even once will remember these images and sounds” (pg. 138), and yet somehow after M’s 1931 release in Berlin, it only generated moderate reviews. So, if M wasn’t a major blockbuster for its time, what is it about M that entices us to pay attention today, what draws us to look deeper into the story? According to Kaes, we need look no further than our own newspapers, full with “stories of serial killers, mass murderers, and school shootings…veterans carrying the war into the cities” (pg.138) and so forth. Besides our obsession, Kaes forces us to look outside the media and provokes the introspective question: “[are] killers naturally born, or are they a product of their environment?” Do historical events and culture shape and motivate murderers and mayhem? According to Kaes, “Lang’s M is implicated in these current questions, but responds to them by suggesting through its very form that something else entirely might be negotiated in these films – something that has to do with us, with our lives, our communities, [and] our culture” (pg.138).
M is considered one of the greats, not just because of the film’s symbolism’s, but also because of its receptor of acting. Consider Peter Lorre’s performance as Hans Beckert as genuinely chilling. One of the most haunting scenes was during the mock trial with the cities criminals sitting in as judge and witness. Beckert is forced to defend himself against the anger of a town tired of being afraid and of police harassment. It questions everything. This film, for its time, used scientific forensic techniques that was considered in 1931, to be rather progressive. This was a CSI-esk film sixty-nine years before its time. But at the same time it begs us to question the use of such modernization; in the tormented face of Beckert, M begs us to question the duality of man. We know better, but cannot help ourselves. Here is one of the films most chilling moments:
What is so real about this moment, so unnerving? Read again what Beckert has to say:
“What do you know about it? Who are you anyway? Who are you? Criminals? Are you proud of yourselves? Proud of breaking safes or cheating at cards? Things you could just as well keep your fingers off. You wouldn’t need to do all that if you’d learn a proper trade or if you’d work. If you weren’t a bunch of lazy bastards. But I… I can’t help myself! I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me, the fire, the voices, the torment! It’s there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently, but I can feel it there. It’s me, pursuing myself! I want to escape, to escape from myself! But it’s impossible. I can’t escape, I have to obey it. I have to run, run… endless streets. I want to escape, to get away! [But] I’m pursued by ghosts” (M, 1931).
The history surrounding M, the political and social crisis of the Weimar Republic, cannot help but have some kind of impact on the film. In a way, M captures the ghosts of 1930’s Germany, the surrounding worldwide recession of 1930, the mass unemployment and rise of criminality and political discontent that eventually lead to the rise of National Socialism, the Nazi Party (pg.140). According to Kaes, “the original title [of M] was Mörder unter uns (meaning…Murderer among Us),” which, in a strange way, combines the “explosive atmosphere of Germany two years before Hitler’s assumption of power” (pg. 141) and the infamous murder trial involving Hitler’s “Storm Troopers,” hit men who murdered a member of the Reichstag communist party in the late fall of 1930. Besides using M as a modern interpretation of our own obsessions and crafting of modern day killers, Kaes reflects on the films own history and asks if indeed, “were the Nazis ‘murderers among us’” (pg.141)?
Looking at how M impacts us today and what was going on during the films own particular history, historian Kaes probes the deeper meaning of M, basically, what M represents as an historic achieve of 1930 Germany. According to Kaes:
“M presents a society at war with itself. Serial murder recalled wartime slaughter, and the heightened state of mobilization of an entire community echoed experiences from the home front…[focusing] on the downtrodden lumpen-proletariat, [including] washerwomen and fatherless children, criminals and beggars, haggard prostitutes and slovenly policemen” (pgs. 143-144).
According to Kaes, M was a representation of the public’s strange fascination with murder, suggesting that imitation murder “displaces and shields us from real murder” (pg.146), thus, in an ironic twist of things, “murder and its mass marketed representations feed on each other” (146). Basically, murders are covered by the media in noir-esk fashion, inspiring future killers to commit asks of greater violence, which in turn is reported by the media, and so on and so forth; all the while, sitting on the backdrop of current events relating to culture and social n(m)ormality.
Historian Kaes interpretation of M is provoking in many ways. While we watch the film and enjoy the artistic nature of a cult classic during the sound revolution, Kaes forces us to see the things hidden underneath, the film as a representative model of not only our own culture, but also the particular culture history of 1929-31 Germany. Kaes reminds us that even in 1931, the Great War was still a “living memory [of] national shame of defeat and [resentment of] the financial and moral burden” (pg. 151) embodied in the Treaty of Versailles. The most provoking notion Kaes leaves us with is how interconnected everything seems to be; yet how we never seem to notice.
This entry was posted on April 7, 2014 by Thomas S Flowers. It was filed under History, Horror and was tagged with 1931, Anton Kaes, cinema history, cultural history, Fritz Lang, Germany, History, M, madness, National Socialist Party, serial killers, Weimar Germany, Weimar Republic.