Fritz Lang and Peter Lorre accomplish a remarkable feat in M (1931). They humanize child murderer Hans Beckert. Suspenseful, drenched in tragedy, M brings the audience through Beckert’s harrowing final days as he evades both police and the criminal underground. Beckert’s frantic efforts to escape the tightening noose echo his attempts to overcome his compulsion. A scratched and worn window sill in his apartment give the police clues into his whereabouts, and to the viewer clues of the scarring in Beckert’s own soul.
Broken doors, warped reflections in windows, the sense of things corrupted from their true purposes fill the scenes of Lang’s film. Beckert cannot stop whistling an eerie tune from Edvard Grieg; it lingers throughout the first two acts, just as he can’t stop his own monstrous actions. Finally brought to answer for his crimes before a kangaroo court of criminals, Beckert bares his soul. He is no monster, he is a man—broken and distorted, unable to live with himself, and unable to control himself.
Lang’s editing choices, his use of composition, his use of sound and silence continue to have tremendous influence on today’s films. Often, however, what his successors do in attempting to humanize the serial killers that haunt our fears is to excuse them, to explain them, to show that they are not responsible for their actions—even Hitchcock falls prey to this in his classic Psycho. Lang makes no such excuses for Beckert. We see his warped soul as if we see ourselves in the funhouse mirror. The justice of courts or of lynch mobs cannot overcome this darkness, only react to it. It’s no coincidence that a blind man first identifies Beckert.