M (1931)

SPOILER WARNING: The end of the film is discussed in depth.

The sublime use of early synchronized sound, Fritz Arno Wagner’s impeccable framing and the multiple perspectives of cops and criminals would be enough on their own to solidify M as one of the early great sound films. But what makes M a magnificent film, one that still can be watched today with great emotional impact, is it’s story of—well, redemption is not the right word.  It’s more of a revelation about human nature and justice.

In the final act, the criminals have caught the elusive child molester/murder Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre). They tired of the vigilant raids of the police and decided to take justice into their own hands. Hans stands before a courtroom of criminals, thieves, liars and murders who are all eager to deal out justice and judgment to this inhumane monster, this man that is lower than low. The façade of a court is simply a formality.

As the man charged with Hans defense points out, the criminal kingpin is himself wanted for the murder of several men. Of course, that’s a far different thing from raping and murdering children, certainly it’s a much more heinous crime for which there is no defense. Yes, the judge, jury, witnesses and audience may all be guilty, but at least they’re not as guilty as Hans. Right?

M doesn’t explicitly state it, but the final shot of the criminals is everyone raising their hands in unison as the cops bust in. Here come the representatives of real justice and when faced with real authority, all arguments fall silent, only the gesture of surrender to justice and judgment can be extended. Considering the degrees of guilt doesn’t add up to much in the final moments of the film.

The final shot of the film is the harrowing scene where the grieving mothers of the murdered children are quick to point out that no matter what punishment is given, it won’t bring back their children. Justice may seek to right wrongs, but it can’t restore what is lost, it cannot heal what is broken or reverse what has been transgressed.

The film leaves the audience with this mess of justice. What good does it serve ultimately or philosophically? There are many forms of guilt, many wrongs that justice would seek to right, and the very crowds of people who scream for justice are the very people who are the greatest transgressors. Who is to blame when everyone is at fault?

Peter Lorre’s Hans Beckert is not the distant Other, that voracious monster that exists as a social abnormality—well, except that he is. But on a deeper level, he represents the inherent cycle of wrong-doing and evil that lies at the root of many a transgressor. Yes, he does horrible things, yes, he knows they’re horrible, but that is what is tragic and that is why he is human: he contains the compulsion and the desire of doing wrong to others in spite of retaining his moral compass.

Thus is the human dilemma. If Hans didn’t think he was doing wrong, he would be the real abnormality. As it stands, he represents the everyman, the human.  Is his crime deplorable? Most certainly, but the film is quick to remind the audience of the slippery slope of the scales of justice, scales that the average human would do well to avoid, for many are at fault and the scales must be balanced.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing

  • Dan

    Interesting post, James. I watched M a while ago, but it’s really stuck with me. The first half includes some remarkable chilling sequences with the killings. Your post does a nice job digging into the gray areas shown in the movie, especially in the final trial. The cops and criminals are so similar to each other. Hans may be a monster, but his speech makes it clear it’s not a choice for him (unlike the other criminals). I really need to watch this again.

    • James Blake Ewing

      It’s definitely one that holds up to rewatches. This is the fifth or sixth time I’ve watched it and it only gets more compelling with each viewing.

      • Dan

        Wow, that’s impressive! I’ve only seen it once, and that was back in college. It’s been too long.