not in our stars, but in ourselves
Any and all cultural artifacts from the Weimar Republic fascinate me, as they do many people, because such an interregnum produced art that commented not only on the humiliating loss endured after World War I, and the seemingly outlandish vindictiveness of the Versailles Treaty (at least, to the average German); but also on the dark impulses, neuroses, and compulsions forming in the German psyche as a result of the one-two hit of defeat and ensuing descent into chaos – the kinds of impulses, neuroses, and compulsions that proved fertile ground for a certain failed art student to amass a rabid following. It’s terrifying when a nation that had once relied on order and stability is reduced to rubble; the first leader who comes along promising a return to the way things were, however criminally insane he might be, will probably win enthusiastic, blind support. I have to say, I’m worried about Greece.
Anyway, none of that really relates all that much to M (1931) in any kind of specific way; except that I do think Fritz Lang, along with many other Weimar-era artists, is commenting on the wounds inflicted by the Versailles Treaty in his film about a child murderer. Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) has been on a spree in an unnamed German city, luring children with sweets and toys to grisly deaths. He whistles Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” while escorting his victims to their doom. After killing little Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut), the police begin a fierce – and largely ineffective – crackdown. They act on every tip, they investigate every erroneous lead, they take initiative and raid nightclubs in the red-light district every night. The city’s criminals find it impossible to conduct their usual “business” in such conditions. For reasons more capitalistic than conscientious, the criminals decide that they must “eliminate” Beckert: they can’t rob banks, pick pockets, exchange sex for money, sell dope, or perform back-alley abortions if the police are actually paying attention to the dirty underbelly of the city. They are much more cagey and much better organized than the police, and within a month (as opposed to the so-called authorities’ eight months), they find and capture Beckert. In an abandoned distillery, they put him on trial, and he gives a speech that still astonishes me no matter how many times I watch this film:
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 give up. 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! And I’m pursued by ghosts. Ghosts of mothers and of those children… they never leave me. They are always there… always, always, always! – except when I do it, when I… Then I can’t remember anything. And afterwards I see those posters and read what I’ve done, and read, and read… did I do that? But I can’t remember anything about it! But who will believe me? Who knows what it’s like to be me? How I’m forced to act… how I must, must… don’t want to, must! Don’t want to, but must! And then a voice screams! I can’t bear to hear it! I can’t go on! I can’t… I can’t…
Lorre is amazing here, every inch the panicking animal in a trap. Where the police focus on the “strongly pathological” nature of Beckert’s crimes, the man himself expresses his horror at realizing that he is a monster. No amount of Freudian lingo will change that fact. Perhaps all sex offenders claim to understand that they are dangerously sick and need help, in a bid for some sort of guarantee of help and safety, but Beckert’s admission of monstrosity is so hysterically real that I don’t think he’s really angling for anything, except perhaps not being tortured and eventually killed by a mob of crooks.
What keeps me coming back to M – and I do keep coming back to it, and re-watching it, and letting it kick me in the teeth again and again – is my private conviction that the whole thing is much more than a movie inspired by a few notable German serial killers. I think it’s about how Lang saw Germany as Beckert: sick, beyond help, vicious, but not quite as vindictive and cruel as the so-called “authorities” – whether crooks, cops, or the Allies.
I am not saying the Allies were worse than Germany. I am not saying Germany gets a free pass for what it started doing as of 30 January 1933. But the Weimar Republic, with its massive inflation; its huge social problems; its political malfunction; was the result of Germany being humiliated by defeat and then hacked to bits by the victors. And then, horrifically, that corpse re-animated itself. It fed itself on human flesh. It grew to be an epic exemplar of evil, probably the worst Europe has ever seen or will see. Who knows what would have happened if the mob had succeeded in killing the human side of Hans Beckert, leaving only the monster alive.
Oh, right: we all know that one.