Director: Fritz Lang
Rating: Not rated
Towards the end of M, a child murderer asks an assemblage of criminals, "Who knows what it's like to be me?"
It's a line from one of the most well-acted monologues I've ever watched on-screen, delivered by Peter Lorre - an actor usually best known for playing disturbing individuals. In this case, his character forces people to consider the limitations of earthly justice.
Lorre plays Hans Beckert, a small man, boyishly plump, who for much of the movie strolls the streets of a German city anonymously. He's responsible for a series of child murders (it's also all but explicitly stated that he has a sexual interest in his victims). The crimes remain off-screen. What we see is Beckert passing through the city, whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King" in the presence of children he wants to prey on. He lures them with toys, candies, and balloons. What we also see is a mother, waiting for a child who never returns from school. And there are scenes of the city in a panic, people pointing fingers at each other and sending letters to the police that accuse their neighbors.
Two exhaustive hunts for the murderer unfold. One gets conducted by the police. The other one gets organized by the head of a criminal syndicate (his nickname is "The Safecracker"). Not only do many criminals loathe the sort of crimes Beckert perpetrates; they also despise him for bringing the police out in full force throughout the city, which interferes with their own activities.
Even with its heavy subject matter, M has moments of humor, startling some laughs out of me. It's also an intensely suspenseful movie. And it asks difficult questions.
What is Beckert? During his monologue, he's a boy pleading (and a man making excuses?), he seems unhinged (though capable of carefully evading police and writing chilling letters to them), and acts like a cornered dog (but is human). Before his crimes, he whistles "In the Hall of the Mountain King," giving him a goblin or troll-like feel. But he's human. So how does a society deal with a human like him? Execute him, imprison him, put him in an insane asylum, what's the best choice? (Who knows what it's like to be him?)
Beckert stirs up the darkness in other people and unbalances society. The relationship between police and more ordinary criminals has a kind of balance and stability until Beckert comes along. Then the line between the criminal justice system and the criminals themselves becomes more blurred, as both elements conduct a man hunt and seek to put Beckert on trial. Beckert shakes up common notions of justice and decency. People who ordinarily wouldn't want to kill might make an exception for him, to tear him apart in a mob, and people who ordinarily exist in a semblance of peace with their neighbors turn on each other in panic and suspicion. He brings out the dark, chaotic forces around him.
The issue of society's response to monstrous actions and to its own forces of instability and darkness takes on further meaning when you consider that Lang made this movie not long before World War II. Certain images from the film become, in hindsight, more chilling - scenes of German police barking orders and rounding people up from buildings, and the piles of belongings we see in one shot (loot the police collect from thieves, in the movie - but it winds up echoing images of the belongings stripped from the Nazis' victims). Child murder in this movie is considered an action beyond the pale, but not beyond human capacity, not by a long-shot.