Fritz Lang’s M is probably the greatest inspiration to all all horror films from 1931 forward. With cinematography that highlights shadows, sound that follows its villain’s every footstep, and an eery signature to know that the villain is about to pursue (for M, that signature is Peter Lorre’s whistling of Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King”), all the makings of a horror film began here.
But, strangely enough, M is not a horror movie. It founded many of the techniques that are musts in horror movies, yet its purpose is not to incite fear. But it is about fear. It’s about the inner life and the actions of a terrorist. The word “terrorist” is a strange one since it doesn’t convey murder but we always use it to refer to people who commit or attempt murder. A terrorist is not just a murderer, but a person who wants to control a large group of people through fear. Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre’s character) is a terrorist.
We see the results of Hans’ terrorism before we ever see him. The opening scene of M shows a group of small children playing a game where they chant “The man in black is coming soon to chop you up.” A mother tries to stop them, gripped by her own fear for her children, but another mother tells her to leave them alone because as long as the kids are singing, they know they’re ok. We see that Hans has been effective in controlling the whole community by fear.
Police officials fight over how to find the murderer. They’re in pursuit of their own control. They don’t mind so much that the community is overcome by fear, so long as they can be the heroes that bring the murder to justice. There’s no need to try to bring the community together after the tragedies it has endured as far as the police department is concerned. But they don’t have much of a chance of finding him when all they do is fight amongst each other, constantly compromising their investigation.
The rest of the town, left to themselves in fear and anger, are ready for vengeance. They’re so naturally overcome by the fear and anger that results from terrorism that they’re liable to commit their own injustice, so ready and willing to kill the killer that they could very easily condemn the wrong person. The division between the local authorities and the public creates so much confusion that the clear clues given to the audience are missed by the characters even though they should be obvious.
There’s no good news in M. It’s one of the bleakest films ever made, but that bleakness is more because of the community’s reaction and division resulting from the murders even than from the murders themselves. There is a strong message behind the bleakness that a choice always exists in desperate times of trauma, grief, and the effects of terrorism. The choice is for people to unify through shared values to heal where necessary and even to make a positive impact together or to divide, letting fear, anger, and the terrorists win. Of course there’s no choice over whether people experience terrorism and the fear and anger that go along with it, but how they relate to the other people that experience it with them makes a great difference in the future of communities gripped by any type of terrorism. M has no good news in it because its characters choose division, but watching M we can still find good news in knowing there is a better choice available with much better outcomes.