“Fantastic! Against humanitarian soppiness. For the death penalty. Well made. Lang will be our director one day.”
- Joseph Goebbels on M, from his diary [Thursday, May 21, 1931]
Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M, released in Germany in May of 1931, was immediately—and has remained—a film viewers are eager to read as a reflection on its historical moment and political context. Produced during what turned out to be the final years of Germany’s short-lived Weimar Republic [1919-1933], it condenses the turmoil of a society caught between official and unofficial means of retribution into a single story about the hunt for a serial killer.
M, Lang’s first sound film [although not in the least Germany’s, as the director sometimes liked to claim], would leave a lasting impression on global film and later television production—far beyond the forgotten American remake. More than any other film from the era, it set the tone and look of Hollywood’s “film noir” era; we have it to thank for format of the serial killer drama that cuts back and forth between the perspective of an anonymous killer and the police force tracking him down; it established Peter Lorre as cinema’s go-to creep; and it is a master class in the use of sound in tying scenes together, evoking off-screen space, and creating productive conflicts with the image.
With M, Lang and his fellow filmmakers, including screenwriter Thea von Harbou [the frequent collaborators were also husband and wife], probably invented the modern police procedural. Inspired by detective fiction, and following their own contributions to the crime film in Germany, Harbou and Lang crafted a film based on a then-recent real-life case: Peter Kürten, also known as “The Vampire of Düsseldorf,” who had committed at least ten murders and dozens of sexual assaults in that western German city, and whose sensational trial had just concluded with the pronouncement of the death sentence in April of 1931.
Viewers in 1931 couldn’t have missed the parallels between the much-publicized Kürten case and the plot of M; the film’s depiction of the pursuit of Hans Beckert [Peter Lorre] recalls the situation around the murders in Düsseldorf in more ways than one. The hunt for the Vampire of Düsseldorf had included the recruitment of famed Berlin homicide detective Ernst Gennat, on whom Lang and Harbou would base their unconventional detective Inspector Lohmann [Otto Wernicke]. Gennat, like Lohmann, was known for his detached, casual demeanor in interrogations—and for cooling his feet off in ice buckets in his office.
The meticulousness of M’s portrayal of police procedure—and the way this procedure is integrated into the film’s complex series of cross-cuts and sound bridges—gives the impression of a documentarian ethic, and indeed Lang and Harbou spent much time researching the practices of police forces in Germany and elsewhere. But by inserting a second, criminal network of punishment and retribution into this framework, M also presents us with challenging questions regarding psychology, guilt, justice, and rational procedures of inquiry. What happens, the film’s surprising second half seems to ask, when the criminal mob takes on the form and functions of the police?
The kangaroo court that ends the film, as the city’s criminals band together to pass judgment on a child murderer the official police force has been unable to capture, is the central point of contention among those who have been eager to read either an anti- or pro-authoritarian message in the film. Although the gruff but valiant Inspector Lohmann breaks up the kangaroo court and nabs the killer Hans Beckert on behalf of the legal system, the depiction of both the criminals and the serial murderer are ambivalent enough that its politics remain something of an open question.
Could this be interpreted as a political statement? One is tempted to make reference to the Nazis here. When eventually the National Socialist German Worker’s Party [National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiters Partei, the NSDAP or Nazi in its distinctly German abbreviation] took power in early 1933, rather than wholly replacing the Republic, they suspended the Constitution and supplemented and substituted the official institutions of the Reich with their own Party apparatus—and here we see where we are tempted to read ominous augury into M’s kangaroo court.
A remarkable thing about the Nazi power structure is that rather than fully annul the democratic “Weimar Constitution,” they suspended it legally, using its clause granting the President emergency powers to keep it in perpetual abeyance. This suspension allowed the Party to both use institutions already established by previous governments and to set up their own system of brutality that could work with equal legality. The rest, as they say, is history, and the kangaroo court in M seems to prefigure this catastrophe, as the brutish thugs take on the form of government.
Fritz Lang himself was happy, in the years after he fled Germany for America, to nurture any reading of his films that saw them as bold stances against the coming storm. His first two sound films, M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse [Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, 1933—a film that, in my estimation, it’s much more fair to read as a kind of anti-Nazi statement] are often tied up with a heavily embellished and [at least] partially fabricated story Lang liked to tell about fleeing Germany immediately after a meeting with Joseph Goebbels.
After fleeing to Hollywood, Lang buoyed his anti-Nazi credentials with such stories and with the projects he chose to work on. Some of his first projects in the US would be the Hitler-assassination thriller Manhunt  and the Bertolt Brecht collaboration Hangmen Also Die , which repurposes many of M’s formal innovations to depict Gestapo agents hunting Reinhardt Heydrich’s killer in occupied Prague.
For Lang and his collaborators in 1930, however, this was in the future—it is useful to remind ourselves, particularly at our own historical moment, that a Nazi ascension to power wasn’t a foregone conclusion until it happened. So in what sense can we consider M within its context? The Nazis had earned 17% of the vote in the 1930 elections, an amount worrisome to German democrats but not enough to get them much power. A small, regional party as recently as the late 1920s, the onset of the Depression had increased both the NSDAP’s profile and its popularity. Their appeal lay in their promise to return Germany to its alleged pre-democratic greatness by rooting out the “non-German” influences that had supposedly cost the nation the war and its position among the Western powers.
But although the Nazis were clearly growing, they were neither the only far-right nationalists nor the only party with a paramilitary organization. In early ‘30s Germany, even the German Social Democrats had a fledgling paramilitary group. To draw an imperfect analogy, imagine if the Democrats were to raise a small armed force.
The answer to the question posed is quite simply that the best way to read M’s politics is against its own immediate past, rather than against its future. While the Nazis would exploit a glaring fault in the Weimar Constitution, the problems of an unstable political order, the widespread use of violence, and the existence of extralegal forces was one that had plagued the so-called Weimar Republic in the early years of its existence [1919-1923] and had returned with a vengeance with the Great Depression. A parliament that seemingly couldn’t agree on anything was ceding more and more power to the President, the aging Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, who along with his revolving door of Chancellors, essentially ruled by decree between 1930 and 1933.
But complicating our initial reading of the criminal’s kangaroo court in M as critical of justice by brute force is the fact that in 1930, Lang himself might have been susceptible to the nationalist fervor stirred up by the Nazis and other right-wing parties, rather than an opponent of it. Patrick McGilligan, Lang’s biographer, relays testimony from Lang’s acquaintances from the era—including Peter Lorre, the star of M—that Lang and von Harbou were friendly acquaintances of Goebbels. It is established fact that Goebbels, along with Hitler himself, held Lang and Harbou’s works Metropolis  and Die Nibelungen  in particularly high esteem, and that Lang and Harbou attended social functions at which Goebbels was present in the early 1930s. M’s producer, Seymour Nebenzahl, claimed that, for a short period in the early 1930s, a Nazi banner hung from the window of the apartment Harbou and Lang shared in Berlin.
When Goebbels praised M in the diary entry quoted at the beginning of this piece, then, he was complimenting the work not only of an artist he admired—and whose politics the nationalist fantasy of Die Nibelungen had led him to believe he knew—but also one he probably had acquaintance with. It is hard for me to see how M might be understood as supporting the death penalty, but then it is in part the ambiguity of the film’s climactic chase and kangaroo court scenes that make it so compelling. Are we meant to gawk and be horrified at the pleas of the murderer Hans Beckert, the soulless degenerate transfixed by gleaming shop windows and protected by the anonymity of urban culture—likely Goebbels’s reading—or to find ourselves surprised by our horror at his mistreatment at the hands of the gang of The Safecracker [Gustaf Gründgens, an actor who would become notoriously identified with the Nazi regime]? I would insist that the visual and aural cues of the film direct us toward the latter reading, but Goebbels’s appreciation shows us that, in context, other readings were possible.
Nothing conclusive can be said about Lang’s party-political leanings at the time of M’s production, particularly given the director’s later propensity for self-aggrandizement, but two things are for certain: during this period von Harbou became a committed Nazi, and would continue to work for the film industry of the “Third Reich”; and Lang, on the other hand, would eventually choose to flee to the United States when, by all appearances, he was in no immediate danger, and had likely been offered a high position in the film industry—though it was certainly not in the dramatic, last-minute escape he liked to construct for later interviews. 
There was a clear divide of attitude between Lang and Harbou whose marriage was already falling apart as they worked on M; while the split by all accounts wouldn’t be primarily over politics, one can imagine that the frequently cited political ambivalence of films such as Metropolis, Die Nibelungen, and M is the result of conflicting approaches from their creators. It is one of the reasons that even the fantasy films the two made are brilliant encapsulations of their moment in history.
Lang’s later work might compel us to embrace the anti-Goebbels reading, however. Like Lang’s first US film, Fury , M can be read as part meticulously executed thriller, part statement against extra-legal mob rule—if so, it would be an even bolder statement, as the film’s climactic scene would call upon us to recognize the humanity and right to due process of even a child rapist and murderer. Furthermore, this warning against mob rule came in the context of what was still, ostensibly, a democracy. The film retains its relevance today precisely because the problems it is concerned with around legality and punishment arose from a democracy in crisis, but not inevitably headed for fascist rule. One final twist, however, is that Beckert’s final speech is the one part of the film Lang always credited without reservations to von Harbou, the committed Nazi.
 While ethnically half-Jewish, the Vienna-born Lang was raised a Catholic and, according to McGilligan, distanced himself from his Jewish roots long before it was politically expedient to do so. Lang’s own account of mentioning his imperfect Aryan-ness to Goebbels in Spring of 1933, and the propaganda minister coolly informing him that “we decide who is Aryan” is probably a fabrication. But a category of “honorary Aryans” [Ehrenarianer] did exist in the mid-1930s, and would likely have protected a personally favored figure like Lang, at least until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.
Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity.
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Patrick McGilligan, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast.
Eric D. Weitz. Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy.