The film, M, was released in 1931, only two years before the Nazi seizure of power. This film was produced by the independent studio Nero-Film and so was not produced by Ufa.
Germany was in chaos after the Great Depression, caused by the U.S. stock market crash in late 1929. This set in motion the chain of events that led to Hitler's appointment as Chancellor in 1933. Before 1929, the Nazis could not get 3% of the vote in national elections. By 1932, they were the largest party in the Reichstag (German Parliament), although still short of an overall majority of more than 50% of the vote. The reasons why the Nazi's could gain power without having an absolute majority of votes is a feature of the political system of Germany which allowed parties to hold power with less than a majority, we will discuss this more in a future lecture.
The movie was directed by Fritz Lang (1890-1976) who is perhaps best known for directing the 1927 silent film, Metropolis. M was his first sound film. Lang like Dietrich and many other German directors and artists, came to the United States after the Nazis took power. In Hollywood he became a successful film director there as well. The lead actor, Peter Lorre (1904-1964), also became a star in Hollywood, most notable, having a supporting role in the American films The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942), both starring Humphrey Bogart and the latter with Ingrid Bergman.
|Conrad Veidt, the Nazi, also played Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.|
The sense of terror and chaos is explicit in the film. The film follows the investigation of a child murderer who is terrorizing the citizens of Berlin. This film is in German and it is subtitled. The German word for child, kinder, as in kindermörder, might sound familiar. Kindergarten, which literally means, "children's garden," was a German educational innovation which was taken to the U.S. in the 19th century. The killer in the film, Hans Beckert, is partially based on real life serial killers in Germany at this time including:
Fritz Haarman (1879-1925), known as the "Butcher of Hanover," he was also a known police informant for many years which caused embarrassment for the police department. Found guilty of 24 murders (claimed responsibility for 50 or 70). Executed by the state.
Carl Großmann (1863-1922), committed suicide while awaiting trial. Is believed to be responsible for as many as 50 murders.
Karl Denke (1870-1924) committed suicide after being arrested. Responsible for as many as 30 murders.
Peter Kürten (1883-1931), dubbed the "Vampire of Düsseldorf" by the media. Responsible for as many as 30 murders. Executed by the state. Kürten was still on death row when the film premiered in May 1931.
Some are mentioned in the film. The connection between serial killings and bad economic times is not definitive but there are indications of it: all of these the killers struck during a period of extreme economic uncertainty in German history. In a more contemporary American context, the closest parallel perhaps might be the "Son of Sam" killings in New York in 1976-1977 (in '76 the city declared bankruptcy).
Finally, although it occurred after the film premiered and not technically a serial killer, Bruno Hauptmann's (1899-1936) kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby could be added to this list because of the brutality of the crime, that the victim was a child, and the media sensationalism surrounding it. It also stirred up anti-immigrant protests since Hauptmann was a German immigrant. Many of the methods of investigation depicted in the film were used to convict Hauptmann at his trial like handwriting analysis.
All of these killers targeted women and children, and some of them were even cannibals (eat human flesh). The horrors of the crime and the obvious sexual nature of the crimes became instantly popular with a mass audience and there was a large demand for similar stories and to this day movies based on killers and horror in general are still popular.
Related to this have been the recent string of shootings, going back at least a decade, in public places like schools, supermarkets and movie theaters. The most recent being the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut and the Washington Navy Yard. However, despite the renewed push for tougher gun legislation some wonder if that really addresses the core issue which drives people to such extreme behavior in the first place. The issue of mental health and providing care for those who are mentally disturbed, as well as the social causes of this behavior continue to be pushed aside. Mental health is not in many cases covered under most health insurance plans or only partial and very inadequate coverage. One wonders how well gun legislation can deal with these problems when similar incidents occur among our armed forces as this article from 2012 describes:
The seeming randomness of the targets of these shootings, in some respects, seems even more chilling than the character of Beckert stalking his victims. What they all have in common is an utter disregard for other people and a desperate desire for attention. The most obvious example of this is the tendency of some of these killers, including in the film, to write letters to the public, something also done by the "Zodiac" killer in the 1970s, and even "Jack the Ripper" in the late 19th century (Note, also the tendency to create nicknames for these killers, sometimes by the media but sometimes by the killers themselves).
In a second sense, the killer metaphorically represents the terror and chaos spreading through Germany (and to an extent the whole world) at this time. Germany had barely recovered from the hyper-inflation of the early 1920s, before going back into another severe economic crisis in the early 1930s. This reflects the growing intensity of anti-democratic movements like the Nazis (NSDAP) and the Communists (KPD), who were engaging in more violent street battles throughout German cities.
Besides the sensationalism of a film about serial killers, this film was also influenced by American gangster films like Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931). Although produced in the U.S. even at this time the film industry was a global industry and American films were seen throughout the world, even as they imported foreign films from other countries. Although not depicting prohibition or ethnic gangs, M tries to show the viewer the inner workings of the underworld. Some critics would argue also, that like many American gangster films, this film tends to glorify the criminals, something which may be even more significant in this case, since the criminals also symbolize the Nazis (this then would help reinforce Kracauer's thesis that the German middle-class desired an authoritarian leader).
If we emphasized sexuality and sexual norms more in the last lecture on The Blue Angel, this films deals more with the opposite pole of human behavior–violence. During World War I and after, Freud began to revise some of his earlier theories, like in the essay "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" (1915) http://www.panarchy.org/freud/war.1915.html
and especially in his essay "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" (1920). As the title suggests, Freud now believed that there was a level of the human psyche that had previously been unexplored. Prior to this, the emphasis of psychoanalysis was on the adaptation of the pleasure principle to the reality principle. Although Freud had always believed that the unrestricted pursuit of desire was destructive, he had interpreted this as a result of negligence or recklessness in the pursuit of pleasure overwhelming self-preservation instincts. In the 1920s though Freud began to speculate that human beings have a compulsive drive towards self-destruction, or as he put it an "urge for organic matter to return to an earlier state of things," he would later call this Todestrieb which translates into "death drive" often mistranslated as "death instinct," instincts refer to characteristics that preserve life, the death drive does not help preserve the individual and is something even below the level of instincts, but something that we are compelled or driven to act on, and more primal and of course unconscious as well. Ironically, the idea of the death drive, the urge to return to an earlier state to cease suffering, is not distinct from the concept of nirvana in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. The concept of nirvana, the goal of these meditative practices, essentially refers to an "emptying out" of the self which some interpret as similar to the drive to "an earlier state of things," the word itself literally means "blown out" as in blowing out a candle flame, the flame representing desire–Nietzsche had believed that Buddhism was just as nihilistic as Christianity in its attitude and orientation towards life.
In this newer conception of the instincts, the erotic impulses of the libido (which prior to this had been the focus of repression as the ego develops out of id) are what counter-acts the destructive impulses of the death drive. The id is not simply opposed to the ego, but opposed to itself. "Eros" comes to symbolize Freud's conception of "life instincts" which he opposes to the death drive. Eros is not inherently "good" in this formulation it simply opposes the destructive impulses, on the other side, knowledge of death, our own mortality, and acknowledgement of our destructive potential towards others helps balance out the narcissism produced by Eros which is guided only by desire. When developing this new theory, Freud had originally focused on the internal, self-destructive aspect of it, however by the end of the decade his emphasis had turned more towards how these destructive impulses are directed outward. The political implications of Freud's theory are very conservative: human behavior is primarily narcissistic, self-centered and destructive and dangerous and require strong external authority to keep their destructive impulses under control. This aspect of Freud's thinking is the most controversial and is important to emphasize it is rejected by most mainstream psychoanalytic schools, who still adhere to the older conception based around the ideas of pleasure principle and reality principle, although most mainstream schools of psychiatry seem to accept Freud's "Hobbesian" view of human nature, after English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).
This is the position more or less adopted by Erich Fromm who later broke from his colleagues Adorno and Horkheimer who accepted Freud's new theory based around Eros and the death drive. The sociological twist they would add to it however, is that Freud's theory does not speak to an "inherent condition" of all humanity, but reflects the psychological development of individuals under a modern bureaucratic, industrialized capitalist economy. Capitalist organization of society harnesses and cultivates the death drive while repressing and channeling "eros" for the purposes of labor and production. At the same time the commodification of pleasure through the culture industry satiates the erotic drives of the population in order to keep them docile. Erotic impulses are conservative however and tend to preserve the status quo, whatever it may be, so for the purposes of revolutionary politics, a certain cultivation of the death drive is necessary as well. In economic theory, the concept of "creative destruction" has been used to emphasize the dynamics of capitalist development by Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter who was in turn influenced by Marx. The relationship between the death drive and nihilism should be obvious as well, but where previously we had been talking about nihilism as a set of ideas, that people can "choose" to accept or not accept, now Freudian theory suggests that nihilism is a biological drive of human life.
The relationship between eros and the death drive is complicated, they are seen as opposing forces, yet since they are combined together in one psyche they express themselves simultaneously. So in other words, destructive impulses begin to take on a sexual nature to them, and sexual relations have a destructive element to them as well. Although the precise dynamic between the two is difficult to understand (if the theory is accepted) in its most simplest terms the death drive tends to dominate more when there is a relative deficiency in the expression and satisfaction of erotic impulses. The relationship between erotic impulses and destructiveness are one of the many themes emphasized in the film.
The film opens with children standing in a circle (as we discussed previously a symbol of chaos according to critics like Kracauer) as they sing a song whose lyrics refer to the killings. People spinning in circles was also characteristic of "dancing fever" which we discussed in the first class. This opening is similar to The Blue Angel which shows a woman cleaning while her children go off to school. This gives you a sense of the rhythms of everyday life in Germany, however in this case, a killer violently disrupts the quiet routines of people's lives.
We witness various scenes of social disintegration as the people begin to turn on each other, causing riots. Less noticed, but equally important is the indifference which the door-to-door book seller shows the mother when she asks about her daughter. He clearly does not care all and is indifferent even though it was well-known that a killer had been terrorizing children for months. Depictions like this make democracy seem more like a kind of mob rule, mocks the idea of citizenship, and it might suggest what critics have said about Germany democracy in this time: it failed because the public did not have a commitment to democratic values and attitudes.
The police in the two previous films had a minimal role. The police in this film have advanced means of scientific detection at their disposal and they use it. In this regard the film can be seen as a precursor to shows like Law and Order, CSI, and The Wire in that they depict as accurately as possible "police procedures" or how they conduct investigations and prosecutions.
Also because of its depiction of crime, social order and chaos, police work, etc, this film is more self-consciously "sociological" then the other films. By this, I mean that the director Lang strives to depict real social environments from different class perspectives as if giving the viewer a glimpse into the social world. A good portion of the film takes place outside in the streets, unlike the previous films. Several scenes in the film are shot in a way to give the impression that the camera is entering into some hidden world through a doorway or a window. Unlike The Blue Angel, where you are closely bound to the characters and the environments they are in, this film, lacks a central main character and so approaches the world more as an outsider looking in. Lang himself described his technique as being like a surgeon who uses his camera like a scalpel to cut through the surface of social reality (the social body). This metaphor comparing cinema to surgery is also used by Walter Benjamin who we will discuss at the end of the semester. It is also anticipated in older works of art which realized the increasing ability of art to depict social life.
The film also shows the growth of the power of the state also represented by the police who are given more powers to search people's houses and interfere more. This reflects actual developments in Germany, in 1930 Chancellor Brüning, (the last chancellor before Hitler) invoked the "emergency powers" clause in the Constitution. Most agree, that this only made it easier for Hitler to claim full dictatorial powers later on. Its important to note that this was declared BEFORE the Nazis take power, but gave them a pretext for continuing the "state of emergency."
The Chancellor was forced to in a sense because with the growth of Nazi representation in parliament after 1929 they made it impossible to pass any kind of legislation. Emergency government without proper legal procedures became normal. We will also talk about this more, but it is a basic mechanism of any democratic government that before the executive can act on any laws he needs some kind of approval from the legislature. A legislature that refuses to work with the executive can effectively paralyze government indefinitely.
The way in which murder is depicted in this film is different from Caligari as well. Cesare is compelled to kill because he has no will of his own; Beckert kills because he cannot control himself. Rath is also shown as someone who is consumed by lust, but in this film, Beckert's extreme sexual perversion makes him a danger to any young child. All of the films deal with the theme of mental insanity to some extent as well: Caligari and Rath are both placed in strait jackets during the film; Beckert has a history of mental instability (the police use this to track him down, by obtaining a list of patients who have recently been in mental hospitals). The stark treatment of themes like murder and insanity in the films relate to another argument of Kracauer, who argued that specifically German films produced in this period of time are more brutal and unflinching than films produced in other countries, precisely because of the aftermath of the war, internal revolution, horrible economic circumstances, etc. To use a more modern term, the Germans are essentially "desensitized" to violence and so are able to consume cultural products such as this despite the repeated use of such nihilistic themes. However, Kracauer interprets this as providing a more realistic depiction of social reality and thus of greater artistic value to the critic. In the film this insight is also depicted in the way Beckert whistles "In the Hall of the Mountain King" almost compulsively as he commits murder. One scene even uses this to build dram and tension without the actual appearance of the killer on screen.
A chart, circa 1938 - 1942, of prisoner markings
used in German concentration camps.
The 5th column from the left was for homosexuals–from wikipedia.
The pink triangle is now a symbol of gay rights.
The Nazis are depicted in the film as the criminals who take it upon themselves to catch the killer. They are willing to do the things the regular authorities will not in order to catch this criminal. Their motivation: to get the police off their backs who have been disrupting "business" since the killings started. Unlike Dr. Caligari, who Kracauer argues anticipates Hitler (that is it shows a desire for a leader like Hitler before Hitler was even around). The leader of the criminals "Safecracker" or "Schrenker" is a Nazi right down to his manner of speaking and his body language. Also like Caligari he assumes the appearance of "legitmate authority" this time by impersonating a police officer. One scene in particular is edited in a certain way that you almost cannot tell if the criminals or the police are speaking. The criminals even stage a trial at the end of the film that is highly ironic including blind eyewitnesses and a homeless defense attorney who actually gives a decent defense. Of course the film has the required "happy ending" and the legitimate authorities step in, but even then the closing scene showing weeping mothers suggests that the damage has been done, the trauma has already been inflicted and the official pronouncements of the state do nothing to relieve that kind of pain.
Next week we will have a regular text instead of a film. The essays by Rosa Luxemburg, as we will now be looking more at the political context of the times.
Here is an interview w/ Friz Lang by William Friedkin director of movies like, The French Connection (1971), and The Exorcist (1973), discussing his major films like M and Metropolis, his career, and fleeing from the Nazis.
Assignment: Due 3/14 Choose a scene from M and interpret the scene and explain why you picked this scene.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill, ed. Ian Shapiro, Yale University Press,  (2010)
Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Harper Perennial,  (2008)