Who is the protagonist of Fritz Lang’s M? Certainly not Beckert, the child murderer so wondrously encapsulated by Peter Lorre. He’s on screen for less than a third of the film. One could argue it’s Lohmann, the detective responsible for solving the case, or it could be Safecracker, the de facto leader of the gangs that organize to hunt down Beckert. But neither alone can be said to be the protagonist. Instead M is the story of a city, a city that is responsible for allowing the anonymity of Beckert to lead to the children’s deaths. So how does one stop them? M doesn’t propose that the cops and authority are completely inefficient– As Tom Gunning explains on his book of Lang, they nail the identity of Beckert and sit waiting at his home. But man remain anonymous in this city, and only the anonymous can capture him.
There is a wondrous edit, perhaps one of the greats, that beautifully encapsulates why perhaps the criminals are the one for this job. The five gang leaders meet with Safecracker, who proposes that they must be the ones to hunt down this child murderer. During one of his impassioned speeches, he begins a question, which is then finished instead by Lohmann. Not only is the sentence finished by the detective, but the gesture of the arm Safrecracker uses is finished by Lohmann. When I recently rewatched M, it took me a second to realize we were in a completely different space, with different characters. The structural similarities between the cops and the gangs at this moment—the circular tables, the stern faces, the cigarette smoke—is brutally striking. But that is what Lang suggests, and it’s something he will continue to suggest, is the inefficiency of authority to create real change (We’ll talk about that final line in The Big Heat in this column at some point). We may look down at criminals as brutish and awful, but that is not why we must fear them. We must fear them because they are just as efficient, organized, and intelligent as those we lay our trust in.
Watch the clip here.
Watch the clip here.