A mother looks from the ticking clock on the mantel to the empty chair at the dinner table. She leans out the window and calls her daughter’s name, her desperate cries echoing through the empty streets. “Elsie?" A discarded rubber ball rolls into a shallow ditch. "Elsie!” A balloon dances in the breeze before tangling itself in the power lines. “Elsie!” And the clock ticks. And ticks. And ticks.
Director Fritz Lang could have stopped there–leaving M a stark, chilling study of hysteria and paranoia, of society’s fear of the face in the crowd–and the film still would have been a masterpiece. But midway through the story, he shifts focus away from external horror and instead looks inward, gazing into the tortured soul of child killer Hans Beckert.
Early scenes dehumanize Beckert–he is a shadow creeping across a wall, a faceless figure in the distance–but Lang gradually fills in the gaps, finding the troubled young man beneath the foreboding surface. Consider his expression when he catches a glimpse of a little girl in the reflection of a shop window–how his face contorts into a mask of agony and self-loathing. And consider this impassioned monologue, delivered to a mob of bloodthirsty petty criminals in the film’s closing moments:
I can’t help what I do! I can’t help it. I can’t[…] Who are you? Criminals? Are you proud of yourselves? Proud of breaking safes or cheating at cards? You wouldn’t need to do that if you’d learn a proper trade[…] But I… I can’t help myself! I have no control over this evil thing inside me, the fire, the voices, the torment! It’s there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently, but I can feel it there. It’s me, pursuing myself. I want to escape, to escape from myself, but it’s impossible[…] And I’m pursued by ghosts. Ghosts of mothers, and of those children… they never leave me. They are there, always there… always, except when I do it[…] Who knows what it’s like to be me? How I’m forced to act… How I must… Must… Don’t want to, but must!
Thus, M appeals to two potent flavors of horror: the fear of the monster hiding among us… and the fear of the monster within–the vile compulsions over which we have no control.
[Originally written October 24, 2012.]