M directed by Fritz Lang (Germany, 1931)

There’s a never-ending debate about the extent to which on-screen violence desensitizes viewers. While it can easily be argued that many splatter movies are lacking in any moral compass, in their own twisted way they are a reflection of the society we live in.

The representation of the serial killer as a symbol of humanity at its most depraved has, to my mind, reached saturation point. I reach for the off switch, not out of disgust but through boredom.

Although made when silent movies were still the norm, Fritz Lang’s first ‘talkie’ is remarkably modern in its stylised atmosphere and for daring to adopt an ambiguous , and less melodramatic, treatment of the subject.

If M was made today, the strong likelihood is that it would be far bloodier and that the level of psychological suspense would be cranked up higher.  As it is, we don’t see any brutality and the murderer’s identity is never in any doubt.

Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang uses the shocking story not to get inside the mind of the child murderer, but to expose the kind of society that produces such horrors. It is no coincidence that it was made in Germany at a time when Nazism was taking a grip on the nation.  Lang’s largely misanthropic view of the world is emphasised by the extensive use of unflattering close-ups and the shadowy, noir atmosphere.

In seeking to solve the series of murders, the police desperately look for clues among the criminal underworld. These seedy mobs are frustrated by the way their  activities are restricted while the killer is still at large. Their resolve to find the man responsible is driven by self-interest rather than by any sense of moral duty .

When they catch him, the clamour for a summary execution is prompted by a rabid desire for vengeance and their call for blood is echoed by the mothers of the victims.

Lang takes a bold, and still unfashionable, line by giving voice to a man ( a lawyer?) who argues that despite the heinous nature of his crimes, the guilty party has the right to a fair trial.

Peter Lorre plays Hans Beckart as a tortured figure driven by an uncontrollable instinct to kill. The movie does not expect the audience to have any sympathy for this homicidal maniac; rather it simply questions whether succumbing to the animal urge to snuff out his life reduces ‘sane and rational’ human beings to the same level as such monsters.

The film’s final message is not a plea for justice but a warning to mothers to take more care of the children.