(Of the essays I’ve posted on the original Avocado, my M essay was easily the most popular. So, I decided to repost it here.)
One of the more interesting things about Fritz Lang’s M is the character of Hans Beckert(played by Peter Lorre). He’s a monstrous child killer… but he’s probably the most pitiable character in the whole film that isn’t a grieving mother. Normally this would be a massive contradiction, but Lang and Lorre are somehow able to make it work.
In a normal film, Beckert would be the main villain. The crimes that he commits are horrific and worthy of outrage. He even manages to offend the mafia with his acts. A lot of movies like to have the mafia disapprove of something else evil to show how evil the new thing is. Like in The Rocketeer, where gangsters fight alongside policemen to take down an evil Nazi spy. No sane and just man would think of committing the crimes that he does.
However, Beckert is no sane man. He clearly has severe mental problems. He appears to suffer from Dissociative identity disorder. This means that he has two identities within his body. Several of the things he says in his speech at the end give the idea more credence. He claims that he’s forced to kill those children. And that the force making him kill children is him, pursuing himself. He also can’t remember anything about the killings, only finding out about them on posters.
The main villain of the film isn’t Beckert; it’s the mafia. They care about getting Beckert off the streets not because of wanting children to be safe, but so that the police will cut down on raids. If the police weren’t so devoted to catching Beckert, the mafia wouldn’t care about all the dead children. They oppose Beckert for pragmatic reasons, not moral reasons.
In addition to their less than honorable reasons for opposing Beckert, they have no guilt for the crimes that they commit. While waiting for “The Safecracker” to show up for a card game, the other crime bosses talk glowingly of the incredibly violent crimes that he’s done. When the police tell Franz the burglar that the night watchmen is dead, he’s concerned. Not because he feels saddened by the loss of life, but because he’s afraid of going to jail for a murder charge.
Beckert, in severe contrast, has nothing but remorse for the crimes that he doesn’t remember. When he’s with the second child, his face looks despondent. Like he really doesn’t want to do what he knows he will probably do. As he describes it: “… I’m pursued by ghosts. Ghosts of mothers and of those children… they never leave me. They are always there… always, always, always!”
Not only does Beckert feel remorse for his deeds, but he wants to stop doing them. Except he can’t; he’s forced to. In his own words: “I want to escape, to escape from myself! But it’s impossible. I can’t escape, I have to obey it. I have to run, run… endless streets. I want to escape, to get away… I’m forced to act… how I must, must… don’t want to, must! Don’t want to, but must! And then a voice screams! I can’t bear to hear it! I can’t go on! I can’t… I can’t…”
The crime bosses definitely want to keep up their criminal enterprises. That’s the only reason for their opposition to Beckert. They don’t care about the safety of the children; they care about the safety of their illegal enterprises. If Beckert was committing his crimes in a different part of Germany or if the police didn’t make Beckert their top priority, they would probably not care at all. Also, their actions in taking Beckert into “custody” are awfully excessive. They break into a building and wreck it up to catch Beckert. Considering how Beckert never intentionally did anything to them, this shows how much they want to continue running their crime empires.
Another reason why Lang made the mafia the main villains is their sanity. Beckert literally can’t help himself. He doesn’t want to be evil, but he’s forced to. If he could ignore the force, he would. He has a massive excuse for his evilness.
The mafia have no excuse for their evilness. None of them are mentally ill and, considering their strategy in capturing Beckert, probably very intelligent. They’re evil because they want to be evil. A good example of this is in the scene in the cellar. The mafia beat Beckert up brutally (and kick him with an iron boot). The level of violence if interesting, since a.) they wouldn’t care about him if the police didn’t and b.) he’s never, intentionally, done anything to the mafia. Basically, they’re beating him up because they like beating people up.
The scene where the mafia put Beckert on “trial” is one of the greatest displays of hypocrisy in motion picture history. They intend to kill him because he’s killed people. Except, they’ve killed a lot more people. The Safecracker probably killed more people in any of the stories that the crime bosses excitably told about him than Beckert has in his whole life. When he kills people, the mafia thinks it’s awesome. When Beckert kills people, the mafia thinks it’s bad. The only difference between the two is that The Safecracker knows full-well what he’s doing when he kills people and Beckert can do nothing except let “himself” take over when he kills children. The truth is, he’s on trial because his actions unintentionally made it hard for the mafia to do criminal acts.
In addition to their trial being held on hypocritical grounds, but their actions in capturing Beckert were illegal as well. They break into a building, knock out the security guards, and destroy the floors and doors. They’re doing all this not to get an evil menace off the streets, but to keep the police from raiding their gin joints less often. So, they’re willing to commit many illegal acts so that they can do more illegal acts in the future without police intervention.
The only person associated with the mafia who isn’t a massive hypocrite is the defense attorney that the mafia gets to represent Beckert at his kangaroo court. He argues that since Beckert isn’t in control when he kills the children, murdering him would be unjust. Compared to the prosecution’s argument that Beckert should be killed (which amounts to little more than holding up pictures of the dead children) it’s very well thought-out.
The mafia’s reaction to this defense is one of their more hypocritical moments in the film. They laugh and sneer at him for suggesting that a mentally unfit man shouldn’t be killed for his actions while not in control. Remember, they don’t have a problem with a sane man killing people. If they did, then The Safecracker would be on trial too. Their true motive in killing Beckert is to decrease the police raids; the trial they put on for Beckert is almost unnecessary. It appears the only reason they put it on was to torture Beckert some more, which lines up well with their personalities.
What makes the contradiction between Beckert’s crimes and his sympathetic portrayal work is due to both Fritz Lang and Peter Lorre. Lang gave Beckert a justification for his actions and gave the main villains hypocritical reasons for opposing Beckert. And Lorre gives Beckert a sympathetic, almost sad portrayal. When he’s giving his speech on why he must kill children (and why he doesn’t want to), it looks like he’s about to burst into tears at any moment. A lesser director/writer and a lesser actor probably would be unable to get this right.