Tuesday, June 22, 2010
“Just you wait, it won’t be long. The man in black will soon be here. With cleaver’s blade so true. He’ll make mincemeat out of you! YOU’RE OUT!” A small girl points to one of her friends standing in a circle around her. This is the initial scene captured in the German Fritz Lang film, “M”. The girl will later find herself as prey for a local sadist. Peter Lorre, in his first leading role, plays a man named Hans Beckert. He is a child murderer who claims to be afflicted with terrible blackouts that hinder him from remembering his crimes.
We don’t know much about Hans Beckert in the film. We assume that he is wealthy and that he may be well educated. He seems to be lonely and disassociated with the rest of society due to mental illness. We are not told if he is originally from Berlin, if he had any childhood trauma, if he mutilated small animals (like many serial killers), or if he had any possible early head injuries suggesting mental abnormalities. What we do know is that Beckert is a murderer and pedophile of small children.
Beckert appears to be a man in his late twenties to early thirties with juvenile messy dark hair and enormous sorrowful eyes set far apart near his frowning brows. His considerably round face and thick bags under his eyes contribute to his oddly fascinating face. With a pudgy frame and dapper clothing, he is presented as a normal and innocent Berlin citizen, with no hint of delusion or dementia. Beckert is never seen with another person in the film, always alone and roaming the streets aimlessly. Children seem to be his only friends, and those, he annihilates after treating them to candy and a walk in the park.
Today, psychologists would have much to say about Beckert’s frightening behavior, but psychological profiling did not exist until the 1940’s. Hans Beckert easily slips through the cracks being that he does not fit the current profile of a serial killer or pedophile. He is small at 5’5”, looking harmless and having a childlike chubby face. He appears to be well off, able to explore the streets in the daytime, living in a small but nice apartment, having a maid service, living in a posh neighborhood, and wearing lavish clothing. Seeming to escape from the normal profiling, Beckert could have continued his spree of murders, except for one detail: Beckert was a former mental patient. Though mentally unstable in some way, he is aware of right and wrong, suggesting he is not a psychopath.
Hans Beckert suffers from maniacal blackouts, otherwise known as acute lethargy, while he is hurting his victims. We know that he claims he is present just before the crime takes place, but afterwards, he is unaware of what he has done until he reads a poster or newspaper. He is shocked and appalled at himself, regretful and frightened. Medical journals explain that these sorts of blackouts can be attributed to psychotic or emotional episodes, which could be the reason Beckert was a mental patient at one time. Possible electric shock treatment could have caused his blackouts, or a childhood head injury or trauma. Sufferers of brain tumors and psychological stress often experience strange personality changes which could contribute to Beckert’s loss of memory during his crimes.
Beckert could have also been molested as a child. Often, the sufferers of sexual assault go on to commit the same crime they were once victim to. People with multiple personality disorder have at least three alternate identities; it is possible that Beckert may have been struggling with such a derangement. Beckert hears voices, which could be a sign he is afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia. He is hunted by his own out of control psyche which conveys that he feels another part of himself is responsible for the murders. Serial killer David Berkowitz not only felt he was Beelzebub, he also believed a black Labrador was demanding him to kill. Psychologists diagnosed Berkowitz with extreme schizophrenia.
Since mental illness was still somewhat of a mystery in the 1930’s, the film itself may be inaccurate in describing an unbalanced and disturbed personality. Inconsistent research done for the film may have also contributed to this fact. It is always possible Beckert is just a pathological liar. Known criminals with serious psychological problems are often fantastic actors, such as Kenneth Bianchi who fooled many psychologists with his alternate personality “Steve Walker”. This fictional character, he claimed, committed the Hillside Strangler crimes in the late 1970’s.
On the other hand, Jeffrey Dahmer, though thought to be one of the worst serial killers of all time, readily admitted to his crimes. Dahmer was remorseful and sickened by his crimes, much like Beckert. Often going into a trancelike state, Dahmer’s conscious mind was absent during the time of his killings. He also suffered from severe alcoholism, which also causes blackouts. Beckert, though, seems to use alcohol to calm his sexual and violent urges.
The term “serial killer” historically did not exist during the 1930’s. The technical definition of a serial killer is one who commits at least three murders spread apart by various lengths of time. Albert De Salvo, also known as the Boston Strangler, was the very first person to be named a “serial killer” by police in around 1963.
Fritz Haarmann and Peter Kurten were prolific killers in Germany in the early 1900’s. The two separate murderers were indiscriminate about who they chose to abduct, molest, and later kill. Not only did Fritz Haarmann, of Hanover, torture his prey, he also reportedly let them bleed to death after a large bite to the neck. Haarmann pleaded for his own death and was beheaded the day after his court trial. Peter Kurten, of Dusseldorf, was an arsonist and sexual deviant who used various methods of killing, but preferred stabbing his victims remorselessly. His murderous reign of terror lasted from around 1913 to 1931. Kurten was guillotined in 1932, much to the relief of the residents of Dusseldorf. Both killers were the inspiration for the film “M” released in 1931. The outrage felt during this time period fueled this film to later be used as Nazi propaganda; the soldier’s being told that the main character, Peter Lorre, was the face of a “typical Jew”.
“M” was Lang’s first “talkie” film although he directed a dozen silent films before. This was also the first film to identify a character by the sound of a song or coincidently, a whistle. Before the killer is seen in the film, he is already synonymous with “Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg. Peter Lorre, the actor, did not know how to whistle, so all of the scenes in which he is seen whistling are done by the director, Fritz Lang.
In the film, Elsie Beckman, played by Inge Landgut, is nearly killed by a bus after leaving school, before a policeman takes her small hand and leads her across the street. The near fatal bus accident foreshadows Elsie’s forthcoming death by the hands of a child murderer. Later without the policeman by her side, Elsie is seen bouncing a ball down the street and stops in front of a light post.
The light post reads, “Murderer! $10,000, marks reward.” The poster is soon obscured by the shadow of Hans Beckert who politely remarks on what a pretty ball Elsie has. Elsie follows the man, who we see only from behind, whistling “Hall Of The Mountain King”. Beckert buys little Elsie a balloon from a blind vagrant, played by Georg John, and continues down the street. This is the last time Elsie Beckmann is seen alive.
Havoc is an understated term to portray the frenzy that has gone on for eight months in Berlin. Four and a half million residents are horrified and fifteen hundred leads are tracked in the search for the child killer. Elsie Beckmann is the eighth and final victim to be abducted and sexually violated before being murdered and hidden in underbrush. Gangs of police swarm the streets in an effort to find any person talking to small children or leading them to a secluded area. Citizens accuse each other of the heinous crimes by mobbing innocent people they think look suspicious.
The only clues left by the murderer are crushed Ariston brand cigarette butts and candy wrappers which cannot be traced to any pastry shop in the city. Fingerprints are analyzed. Homeless shelters and criminal districts are searched. Railway stations and bars are all investigated for any sign of the killer. Every criminal, vagrant, and strange looking individual is demanded to possess identification at all times, which will be examined closely by police investigators. Even police search dogs are sent out to the crime sites for any odor which might implicate the killer to a known criminal.
“Because the police did not publish my first letter, I am now writing directly to the press. Proceed with your investigations. All will soon be confirmed. BUT I AM NOT DONE YET!!!” Hans Beckert is soon found scribbling a letter to a newspaper. On an old wooden window ledge, Beckert is able to see a sunny and beautiful afternoon as he writes his macabre threat. Whistling the same haunting tune, he writes in a childlike cursive scrawl in distinctive red pencil. The grainy surface of the table leaves large indents on the paper as Beckert writes. Killers such as Albert Fish, Dennis Rader, and The Zodiac Killer all craved publicity, writing long and ranting letters to the press in an effort to be noticed. This is a tactic used for the purpose of possibly wanting to be caught, or to frighten the public and exasperate the police.
Beckert’s cryptic letter is released to the newspapers and soon analyzed by a forensic scientist who remarks that some of the words in the note attribute directly to the sexuality of the sex offender. It is the one and only time in the film that the killer is openly suspected to be a pedophile. This was presumably because of the time period, in which Lang was careful not to enrage the public more than it already was. After hearing the terrible tales of Peter Kurten and Fritz Haarmann, within five hours east of Berlin, the citizens were already appalled by the recent violence and chaos. The forensic scientist goes on to say that the uneven style of the note suggests “indolence or madness.”
As the letter is dissected, the scene disintegrates to a rather unusual view, where we see Hans Beckert’s face for the first time. Preening at his reflection in a mirror, he mischievously pulls down the corners of his mouth in a mock frown to show what he believes to be a typical villain. He seems to be laughing at his crimes in this peculiarly strange short scene. Temporarily forgetting his mental maladies, it is easy to see the truly evil capacity within him. He smiles proudly at himself and an eerie silence fills the room before the scene is cut abruptly.
Not only were police searching for Beckert, but criminals were avidly searching for him as well. Because of nightly raids in their districts, the gangsters are unable to commit their own crimes, leaving them destitute. They are also so sickened and angry that such a killer could be roaming their streets and scouring for innocent children. The heart of a criminal is not so malevolent that they are unable to understand the revolting pedophilia and death enacted by Beckert. Having the same goal in mind to catch the murderer, the police and the gangsters have a meeting at the same time of the night in different locations. These scenes are spliced together excellently by director Fritz Lang, who separated the conversations only minutes within each other.
To expedite Beckert’s capture, the gangsters employ street beggars as “look-outs” for the purpose of finding any person luring young children away from schools and toy stores. The reward to these beggars is $15,000 marks and each readily agrees to the job. Each beggar is given a radius in which to keep watch, and all comply with the utmost vigilance. The only soul that knows who the killer is, is the blind beggar who sold the balloon to Beckert the day of Elsie Beckmann’s murder. He can only identify Beckert by his unique whistling, and he is deeply affected by the plaguing tune, covering his ears any time a similar sound is made. The blind man does not hesitate to join in with his comrades to catch the killer.
The police compile a list of mental patients released from asylums in the past five years. These patients have been deemed harmless to society and now live in assisted living homes or their own apartments. Police are told to go door to door to find each one to interrogate. An investigator is sent out to find a Mr. Hans Beckert at a seemingly nice apartment. As he walks into the door of the building, he almost bumps into Beckert who is leaving his home on the prowl for a new victim. The two pass each other unknowingly.
Beckert is seen buying peaches from a street merchant, as if no murders had taken place. He appears indifferent and bored, alone and carelessly throwing peach pits on the ground on the streets. Later, he stops to look at an item in a shop window. There, he sees a small girl behind him in the reflection of the glass. She is eyeing a small toy near him, and he begins to sweat and wipe his salivating mouth. His eyes grow large and he begins scratching the top of his left hand, a nervous tic he appears to have developed as a reaction to anxiety. As the girl leaves to meet her mother at a street corner, Beckert quickly retreats to a nearby café where he orders cognac, one after the other. The visible wash of relief clears the angst from his troubled face and he begins to calm himself by whistling “Hall Of The Mountain King.” His compulsion, however, overcomes him and he quickly begins wandering the streets searching for another child to abduct.
Beckert soon finds his next victim; it is the girl singing the children’s song at the beginning of the film. Passing the blind vagrant selling balloons, Beckert leads the child to a candy store. The vagrant immediately begins to recall the tune whistled by the man who bought Elsie Beckmann’s balloon. Suddenly flustered and frightened, he calls over another drifter to follow the whistler at once.
The drifter trails Beckert and the girl to a candy shop called Obst u.Sudfruchte where he hides behind a trashcan. Perhaps Beckert cared so little for his small victims, that he bought them cheap candy before their deaths. Emerging from the shop, Beckert looks right and left before taking out a switchblade and begins to slice an orange for the little girl. Realizing he must catch the man as quickly as possible, the drifter draws a large “M”, for murderer, on his palm with white chalk. As the drifter passes, he slaps Beckert on the back, leaving a large “M” imprint on the left side of his overcoat. Beckert is unaware of the mark the vagrant has left. Staring as the drifter disappears into the night, the little girl retrieves the switchblade from the ground and hands it to Beckert. This could have been the very tool to fight him off, ironically, as she smiles with the knife gleaming in the light post. Although somewhat bewildered, Beckert decides to continue on his conquest with the girl, his arm protectively around her the whole time.
The gangsters are notified that the killer had been found by the beggars. They are told to follow him in turns to avoid being noticed. When Beckert takes the child to a local store toy store, it is there that the girl first sees the “M” written on his left shoulder. Pointing it out to him, Beckert realizes the terrible fact that he has been found when he looks at himself in the store window reflection. The girl tries to wipe off the chalk, but is unable to erase it. Beckert, alarmed and frenzied, sees that he is being followed and abandons the young girl, running down empty streets and finding himself trapped by beggars stepping out of the shadows. The beggars whistle to each other to advise where he is headed, but Beckert is able to hide in an office building attic, where he is safe. That is, until the door is locked from the outside by a watch guard who is unaware of his presence.
Back in Beckert’s deserted apartment, the investigator falsely tells the maid that he is there to visit with Beckert on behalf of the Tax Department. The maid quickly lets him into Beckert’s room, where the investigator sits down and pretends to read a newspaper. When the maid leaves, the investigator begins his search of the room, looking for an old wooden table or some kind of evidence left in the trash can. The room is empty of clues, except for an empty pack of Ariston brand cigarettes and a bag of candy. Believing something is amiss, the investigator returns to the police commissioner, Karl Lohmann, played by Otto Wernike, who remembers the distinctive cigarettes left at the scenes of the crimes. The investigator thinks about the cigarettes for a moment before noticing the windowsill in the sergeant’s office. “Good God! The window ledge!” The police return to Beckert’s home to find red pencil shavings on the windowsill and the word “press” imprinted on the wooden ledge. Police immediately surround the building and wait for Beckert to arrive home.
As the gangsters determine their plan, Safecracker, the boss, decides to wait three hours for the street to clear of people and cars. The building is soon locked by the guards and each room is routinely checked, while the attic is ignored. When the gangsters arrive, Safecracker is dressed as a policeman and is able to trick a guard into opening it. It is then that dozens upon dozens of the gangsters sneak in, all with various implements to open doors and drill through floors. The on duty watchmen are all knocked out and put in closets to hinder them from identifying the criminals or calling the police. Each locked door is wired, so the alarm will go off if anything other than a key is used to open the door. The gangsters tear the knobs clear off the door to reach each room. This shows the fierce determination they feel about finding the child murderer. The capture of Beckert is now a matter of principle, the reward long forgotten.
In the utility closet, where Beckert is hiding, he is struggling to open the door with the blade of his knife, which breaks and falls to the floor. Sweating and panting, he tries in vain to get the door open, now with the head of a nail, which he tries to use as a key for the locked door. While hitting the nail with the tail end of his knife, making a terrible racket, one of the gangsters hears him through the door and alerts the rest of the gang to check the attic.
At this point, a watchman wakes up and is able to send an alarm to the police with an electronic code that lets the police know where the trouble in the building is taking place.
Still struggling with the make-shift key, Beckert sees the door handle turn and he slowly backs up against the wall, realizing that he has indeed been followed by someone. Turning out the light and hiding under left over office furniture, Beckert is able to escape from the gangsters…. For five minutes. He is soon caught by a blinding light used by the angry gangsters. Trapped in a large burlap bag, Beckert is taken kicking and screaming to an abandoned factory.
The police, still unaware that the murderer has been found, question the injured watch guard who swears that he overheard the gangsters say that “We found the guy! We found him!” This leads the police to believe that the building was not purposefully vandalized, but merely searched for the infamous killer.
Franz, a gangster who was stuck in the boiler room when everyone else fled, is apprehended by police and will not talk. Until wrongly threatened by police that the watchman was murdered, Franz is told he could beat the rap if he told the police where the gangsters took the murderer. Franz admits everything, including the location in which Beckert was taken; the Kunz & Levy distillery. The police arm themselves and prepare to arrest Beckert at the dilapidated factory Franz disclosed.
The watchman, alive and well, is seen enjoying a large dinner at a restaurant.
At the Kuntz & Levy distillery, Beckert is pushed down a flight of stairs to face his peers, one hundred odd criminals, men and women. All standing before him, some of whom are the parents of the victims, Beckert stands frozen. Suddenly understanding his fate, he begins screaming to be let go over and over, to no avail. Pleading with Safecracker, Beckert vehemently denies any involvement in the murders. He realizes he is caught when a hand grabs his “M” marked shoulder. Turning around, he sees the blind vagrant who ironically is the one to catch Beckert only because of his whistling. The blind man tells him, “This is no mistake. No. No mistake. You recognize this? You bought a balloon just like this for little Elsie Beckmann.” The vagrant holds up a brightly colored balloon and then dramatically lets it go. Beckert begins chanting her name, dreamlike, and stumbles backwards. We find it is clear that he is the murderer when Safecracker holds up photos of the little girls Beckert has violated and killed. Beginning to shake and cry, Beckert recoils as each photo is shown.
Beckert is then treated to an informal trial led by Safecracker. Because of their experience and prison sentences, the criminals believe they have every right to exterminate Beckert under their own court of law. The mobs of people begin to shout that Beckert deserves the worst kind of death, that he should be slaughtered for his crimes. The obscenities continue as Beckert throws himself against a pile of wood while trying to escape. At this time, Peter Lorre begins speaking; his character only given less than a dozen lines in the first one hour and thirty-six minutes of the film. He is told that he is given a defense attorney to which he replies, “Defense counsel? Defense counsel? I need no defense counsel! Who’s gonna prosecute me? You perhaps?”
It is presumed that the defense counsel, played by Rudolf Blumner, is in fact a criminal or vagrant himself, wearing informal attire and having unkempt hair and using lackadaisical dialect. When approached by Beckert, the defense merely says, “Hey you. If I were you, I wouldn’t make big speeches. Your heads at stake here, in case you hadn’t noticed….. I have the dubious pleasure of serving as your defense. Though I’m afraid it won’t do you much good.” This shows us that even the defense is not on Beckert’s side, a fact that terrifies him. Death by the mob, considered by any person, is a frightening and horrible experience. Beckert cries out over and over that he demands to be handed over to the police. Beckert would rather be punished by the real court of law in a more seemingly humane and altruistic way.
In Peter Lorre’s hysterical and sobbing speech he conveys his feelings about his crimes with such heart and bizarre craze; one cannot help but sympathize and yet be so sickened with such a character. With enormous bulging eyes, disheveled hair and begging on his knees, Lorre gives a frantic and incredible speech in which to explain his crimes. A spectacular range of emotions burst forth from Lorre showing his tremendous acting ability. From guilt, terror, excitement, frustration, sorrow, disappointment, madness, and delight, Lorre fantastically switches tones within seconds.
"But I can't help it. I can’t… I really can’t…. help it! What would you know? What are you talking about? Who are you anyway? Who are you? All of you. Criminals. Probably proud of it, too- proud you can crack a safe or sneak into houses or cheat at cards. All of which it seems to me you could just as easily give up if you learned something useful, or if you had jobs or if you weren’t such lazy pigs. But me? Can I do anything about it? Don’t I have this cursed thing inside me? This fire, this voice, this agony? I have to roam the streets endlessly, always sensing that someone’s following me. It’s me! I’m shadowing myself! Silently…. But I still hear it! Yes, sometimes I feel like I’m tracking myself down. I want to run- run away from myself! But I can’t! I can’t escape from myself! I must take the path that it’s driving me down and run and run down endless streets! I want off! I want off! And with me run the ghosts of the mothers and children. They never go away. They’re always there! Always! Always! Always! Except… when I’m doing it… when I….,” Beckert closes his eyes in ecstasy. A terrifying smile begins to curl his lips. A moment passes before his shoulders slump and he realizes the horrific deeds he has done. Disappointment engulfs his entire being before going on, “Then I don’t remember a thing. Then I’m standing before a poster, reading what I’ve done. I read and read… I did that? I don’t remember a thing! But who will believe me? Who knows what it’s like inside me? How it screams and cries out inside me when I have to do it! Don’t want to! Must! Don’t want to! Must! And then the voice cries out, and I can’t listen anymore! Help! I can’t! I can’t! I can’t! I can’t!”
Such a speech implores the audience to try and understand what mental illness may do to a person. Beckert, although flustered and stuttering, appears to be well spoken, implying that he is in fact a somewhat intelligent man. Psychosis in individuals with high IQ’s has been observed under the assumption that they believe they can indeed commit crimes without being apprehended. Documented child killers Leopold and Loeb were a standard example of this affliction with IQ’s as high as 210. Ted Bundy, with the IQ of 124, was able to escape from courthouses twice for brief amounts of time.
When Safecracker decides the fate of Beckert, that he must be extinguished because of his horrible acts, the defense counsel suddenly switches sides. After hearing the tearful words of Beckert, the defense rises gallantly from his chair and delivers his own speech that was so much against the death penalty; the mob begins laughing in the middle of his closing statement.
Covering his face and ears with his hands, Beckert kneels on the cement floor praying for clemency. His lawyer, seeing his client cowering against a wooden pole, addresses the court with fervent tenacity, “…… He (Safecracker) is mistaken because the very nature of the compulsion warrants acquittal! It is precisely the nature of compulsion that relieves him of responsibility for his actions! And a man cannot be punished for that for which he is not responsible! I’m saying that this man is sick, and you turn a sick man over to a doctor, not an executioner….. What does the state build asylums for? No one has the right to kill a man who cannot be held responsible for his crimes! Not even the state and least of all you! The state must ensure that this man is rendered harmless so that he ceases to be a danger to society! …. I will not let you shout me down! I will not allow a murder to be committed in my presence. I demand that this human being…. That this human being be afforded the same protection under the law rendered the common criminal! I demand that he be handed over to the police!”
When the lawyer’s speech still does not sate the mob, they begin to rush towards Beckert, ready to impose their own form of the death penalty on him. Suddenly, all of their hands rise up in the air. Beckert looks up from his hands in confusion to find a police officer holding his shoulder and reading him his rights.
The last scene of the film features the mother of Elsie Beckmann in black, tearfully saying, “One has to keep closer watch over the children! All of you!”
We don’t know what happened to Hans Beckert, whether he received the death penalty, was sentenced to prison, or if he was sent to another mental hospital.
The abduction and death of a child is arguably the worst way in which a parent can experience loss. A typical life cycle is that in which a parent will parish first, which is terrible in itself for a child. But when a child is taken early in life, it is the loss of a defenseless and innocent person who never knew a full existence rich with joys and sorrows. The grieving process for a parent is never ending. A parent mourns the loss of a child for the rest of their life no matter the circumstance. The memory of the child often haunts the parent, leaving them in a state of possibly forever blaming themselves for what they could have done to prevent the death from occurring.
What truly matters is the fact that children are abducted everyday and as Mrs. Beckmann said, we must watch them. We cannot trust others to walk them home from school, take them to a candy store, or ask them to keep terrible secrets. Children are innocent and know no better. Any adult could be just as kind and loving as their parents. But underneath could be a pathological liar, a deranged mental patient, or a maniacal killer.
“M” was written by Fritz Lang and his wife Thea Von Harbou. The film premiered May 11th, 1931 in Sweden.