The struggle inside Hans Beckert’s mind
Fritz Lang, in a short interview with Erwin Leiser, remembers the first time he had anything to do with film. He and his friends were watching the 1904 movie The Great Train Robbery. He was fourteen years old and the film, of course, was silent. As the scene when the ‘bad guys’ try to batter in a door with a log played, the young Lang stamped his feet in time to the ramming; his friends joined in, then the whole room thundered with each crack of the giving door. He had moved an audience; it must have been intoxicating.
Lang made several films in the silent style, but M was his first with synchronised sound, and the way he used it has since bled into every film lover’s quickening pulse. In Twisted Nerve a brain damaged psychopath whistles, as he stalks his victim, the jaunty Bernard Hermann ditty Daryl Hannah later whistles in Kill Bill; it’s the unsuspected killer’s whistle meme. Of course, the whistle became another meme that would spread through the horror world like fear on an Amity beach: the introduction of sound to accompany a villain. What Lang knew, and must have known from the moment he stamped on the floor of the cinema and everyone around him joined in, was that anchored to a horrifying visual idea, music had the power to reach right into a person’s chest, and squeeze. And so it is Hans Beckert, played by Peter Lorre, whistles ‘The Hall of the Mountain King’ from Greig’s Peer Gynt whenever he is overcome with the savage lust to murder a child. Peer Gynt becomes the beast inside Hans Beckert.
What we don’t understand at the beginning of M is how the evil ‘inside’ Beckert controls him; we only think of him as callous to whistle so nonchalantly as he leads little Elsie Beckmann away. A pivotal scene, however, shows us.
First, Beckert is himself and all he is doing is window shopping, But Lang ‘frames’ him in a reflected diamond made up of cigar shapes. All he’s doing is eating an apple and wandering home. The ‘cigars’ are important, everything Lang uses in M‘s mise-en-scene is. It’s difficult not to find expression in the huge goldfish trapped in a tiny bowl, or of the caged birds we see in ordinary homes. The hanging scaffold by the bench of the kangaroo court is less subtle. To frame Beckert in these cigar shapes reminds us of what is closing in around him, though he has little idea.
Back in the pivotal transformation scene, Beckert catches sight of a young girl. She is more fully framed by the diamond which turns out to be a mirror. The danger she is in, then, is far more immediate. When the camera turns back to Beckert, his inner prowler begins to take over. He appears squeamish, he wipes his open mouth, he can’t quite focus anymore, he looks stunned, appears to swoon where he stands, he closes his eyes against the nightmare outside, then looks wide-eyed at the prize before him.
When the girl leaves her frame, he does too, only now he is transformed. He is no longer the apple crunching window shopper; he is a stalker. A shadow darkens his eyes, his head is lowered like a lioness on the serengetti, his jaw protrudes hungrily, and he whistles Peer Gynt and leaves the frame. The tune alone follows the girl as she gazes in windows. It is enough to know he is there and he is watching. The tune quickens as he nears her.
Happily for this little girl, she is not his next statistic; all the same, Beckert is left in his killing state with nothing left to eye. Unsated, he stops in at a cafe and orders ‘a coffee, no, a vermouth, no, a brandy.’ We cannot see him ordering; he is seated behind a vine partition, but as the waiter leaves the camera slowly pulls us toward him and we see Beckert through the vertical branches of the vine. Peer Gynt pipes from his lips; it speeds up, stops, begins again more calmly, and again stops. Beckert takes two slugs of the brandy. For a moment it seems to pacify him; he rocks, he closes his visions inside, he looks momentarily beatific, puts a cigarette in his lips. Then, with uncontrollable petulance, he throws the cigarette to the ground and he fists his eyes. Peer Gynt whistles madly from him again, it pipes, it shrieks. Then Beckert stands, the camera pulls back, and he leaves the cafe with a new resolve.
It is a mesmerising scene, especially, when reading the film convention of vertical lines around a character: the character is trapped, the lines suggesting jail bars or a cage. The recurrence of those birds and the goldfish, then, foreshadow both the vulnerability of Beckert’s victims and the state of his mind. The Viewer being aware to the plots against Beckert, these symbolic bars suggest the relative dangers he is in.
Fritz Lang’s film M has much more to offer besides a masterful transformation scene. It definitely deserves to be number 69 in IMDB’s top 250 movies of all time.