“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent, a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that for each film or television show that gets people talking years after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the rest – well, those are the works that stand the test of time. The Ten Percent last for two reasons: (1) they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception and (2) they somehow manage to capture something fleeting and rare and preserve it for the lucky viewing public.
Fritz Lang’s M (1931) fulfills both of these criteria, and then some. The scene is late 1920s Berlin, a city supposedly gripped by fear in the wake of a series of brutal child murders (and, it is intimated, horrific sexual assault). The police are working overtime, and using the latest techniques in criminal investigation, including fingerprints, handwriting analysis, and an early form of psychological profiling – all to no avail. They are also “rounding up the usual suspects,” conducting raid after raid on known criminal hangouts and operations. Yet the killer remains uncaught. More than the first police procedural (which it is), or the first serial killer film (which it also is), M is a portrait and condemnation of German society in the late Weimar Republic.
The killer himself, played by Peter Lorre in the role that would make him an international star, is a schlub. Chubby, hopelessly average in every way, and completely unremarkable, Hans Beckert moves about the city like a small rodent, fearful, skittish, and hungry. Lorre’s protuberant eyes dart from place to place as his hands unconsciously scratch and rub and fidget as he wanders the streets until… he sees a child, the child, and suddenly unremarkable Hans becomes the monster. Yet Beckert’s time on screen is relatively short, and his identity is made known to the audience within the first 20 minutes of the film. The film is about him, and yet not about him at all. Beckert is a product of his time and his place, the spawn of the rot in the city’s, the people’s, heart.
As Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film, Lang’s characters are grotesques: heavy jowled, pasty, sweaty, and hard. From the tubby Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) to the crime boss Schränker (Gustaf Gründgens) to the nameless, and often deliberately faceless, Berlin mob, everyone is ugly in either visage, motivation, or both. Lang enhances this effect with unusual camera angles, particularly shooting down from a height, or up from floor-level or below. Lang also spends much of the film drawing the viewer’s attention to the similarities between the forces of law and order, and the denizens of the city’s criminal underworld. Both sides are looking for Beckert, but despite their protestations to the contrary, neither is motivated by anything as noble or simple as putting a monster away. The police are under increasing pressure from the public and the government, and move out of a fear of being perceived as ineffective. The criminals are activated by the near-stop that the police raids and investigations are causing in their businesses. In a brilliant sequence, Lang intercuts two meetings, one of the city police and officials, and other of the leaders of organized crime in Berlin. The conversations are the same, and as Lang cuts back and forth, he deliberately confuses the viewer again and again as to which meeting is currently being seen, and which smoky room filled with heavyset men is which.
M was also the first time Lang worked with sound, although you wouldn’t know it. Beckert the monster is announced by his slightly off-key, repetitive whistling of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt. The use of a persistent musical theme to identify a character was a staple of opera, but Lang was the first to use it in film. Throughout, Lang uses sound to create mood and character, along the way introducing the voiceover to cinema’s repertoire as well. Importantly, particularly in an early “talkie,” Lang also makes use of silence, intentionally omitting background noises like streetcars, footsteps, engine noise, to set the scene and crank up the tension.
Beyond all of the technical innovations and social commentary, however, M lands in the Ten Percent because it still works 85 years after its release. In an age where serial killer flicks and police procedurals are so common that they’re regularly trite fare, M works. It is still creepy, and Peter Lorre’s killer is one of the most terrifying villains to ever walk the silver screen. Lang takes the time to linger on Lorre’s incredibly expressive face, and to allow the actor to show the insanity and desire that no words could. The film is dark and intense, a forerunner of film noir, which Lang would help create. The culmination of the film comes at Beckert’s trial, not before a court of law, but before the court of crime, kidnapped and dragged into an abandoned building to face the city’s thugs, whores, thieves, loan sharks, blackmailers, and the rest who proceed to condemn him.
Yet Beckert points out that while he is compelled to kill by something inside him that he cannot control, his accusers choose their criminality. Indeed, as the film progressed, the Berlin mobs chose to tear apart two innocent men, taking one from the hands of the police, choosing lynch-law over jurisprudence. Implicitly, Beckert’s final speech condemns the city as a whole – the parents who refuse to believe that something could happen to their child, in their neighborhood, and who’d rather not get involved when the police come round. The police, who know where the criminals are, but settle for a wink and a nod unless and until they’re forced to act. The papers that publish Beckert’s letter in extras before giving it to the police. The criminals, who set themselves up as judge, jury, and executioner and revel in the feeling that here, at last, is one who is worse than they. All of these are choices. Beckert, on the other hand, is a monster, and a monster can only be a monster. Lang does not force forgiveness or acceptance of Beckert, but he does demand understanding. In a way, Beckert is the devouring foulness of the city made manifest, and one is forced to acknowledge that, even when he is put away or executed, that foulness will still be there, and will simply find another outlet.
M is a gripping, moody thriller that forces the viewer to find the reflection (at times literally) of Beckert within themselves and their culture, and ultimately suggest the blame for the murdered children falls not as much upon the madman in their midst, but on themselves and their unwillingness to face the little monsters that ultimately allow the big ones to hunt. Seek this film out, but be sure to watch a restored version, preferably the Criterion cut, which is complete, and faithful to Lang’s original cut and editing. Then turn out the lights and let the darkness come. Sometimes, that’s the only way to find the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.