Vigilante Justice: Truth, Nightmares, and ‘M’
By Brian Keiper
Practically since the release of the original film in 1984, fans have been calling for a prequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street. I would argue that one already exists. I am not talking about “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” the pilot episode of Freddy’s Nightmares directed by Tobe Hooper (as great as it is), but a feature film about a child hunter and murderer who falls to mob justice — Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M. There are several reasons why M works as a prequel to Nightmare (or at the very least makes a great double feature) including a number of minor details that link the two films. But the strongest connective tissues between them are the nature of their villains and the element of mob justice.
M is one of the first and greatest serial killer films of all time, made all the more frightening by the fact that it was inspired by real horrors. The Weimar Republic, the short period in German history lasting from the end of World War I in 1918 to the rise of Hitler in 1933, produced a surprising number of serial killers. In fact, the term Serienmörder, from which serial killer is derived, was first coined in this era by a Berlin police inspector named Ernst Gennat, who inspired the character of Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) in Lang’s film. The killer in the film, Hans Beckert, played by the great Peter Lorre, is one of the most nuanced, complex monsters in film history. According to Dr. Lee Mellor in his book Behind the Horror, “six Weimar-era serial killers served, to varying degrees, as inspiration for Hans Beckert: Johann Mayer, Friedrich Schumann, Carl Großmann, Fritz Haarmann, Karl Denke, and perhaps most of all, Peter Kürten, the so-called ‘Vampire of Düsseldorf.’” Großmann and Haarmann, whose crimes included a cannibalistic element, are even mentioned by name in the film. Of all of these, however, Kürten remains the most notorious even to this day.
Peter Kürten was a soft-spoken, well-dressed, and unassuming man who sent his hometown of Düsseldorf into a panic in 1929–30. Before he turned himself in so that his wife could collect the reward money for his capture, Kürten sexually assaulted and murdered a number of women and children, resulting in a nationwide manhunt led by Inspector Gennat. He strangled, stabbed, and bludgeoned victims with hammers. He later claimed that he had been sexually aroused by the sight of blood from an early age and became excited by the idea that after being beheaded on the guillotine he would be able to hear the sound of the blood spilling from his neck before he died. This fixation with blood garnered him the nickname “Vampire of Düsseldorf.” He was rather indiscriminate in his choice of victims, attacking and murdering men and women, boys and girls ranging in age from 5 to 45 between 1913 and 1930. He was known to occasionally return to the scenes of some of his crimes to observe the police at work. According to Mellor, after being questioned by an officer at one of his early crime scenes “his voice was so soft and gentle that the detective found it hard to believe that he could have perpetrated such a heinous crime.” The ordinary, even genial nature of Kürtan and other Weimar era killers is a key point that M makes.
One of the most frightening and real elements of M is that when we finally see Hans Beckert, he is not a hideous and deformed monster, but an ordinary, even affable man with a very dark and monstrous hidden secret. It is one of M’s many genius elements as well as a source of undeniable discomfort that, like Peeping Tom and Psycho 30 years later, it attempts to view its killer with a modicum of empathy. This is bold and daring, particularly for a German film of the early 1930s. As humans, we much prefer our monsters to be completely monstrous, depraved, and hideous inside and out, but real people are much more complicated than that. No good person is all good, nor an evil person pure evil, we are all a mixture, finding ourselves somewhere along the continuum between the extremes. M never asks us to like Beckert or excuse his actions in any way; it condemns them very clearly. But like many of the great antihero narratives of cinema — The Public Enemy, Taxi Driver, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and many others — it does ask us to dig deeper and attempt to understand them, at the very least on a cautionary level.
The film also posits that his deeds are the product of Beckert’s psychopathy and untreated mental illness, what Dexter writer Jeff Lindsay dubbed the “Dark Passenger.” In one of M’s most famous images, Beckert contorts and manipulates his face in the mirror in an attempt to look like the monster the notices plastered throughout town depict him to be. But it inevitably returns to its natural, cherubic state: a face somehow as or more disturbing than Krueger’s scarred visage because of the evil that lurks behind it.
Where Hans is a tortured soul, Freddy Kreuger is not. Freddy’s only interests are fear, destruction, and revenge. As Wes (Wes Craven) tells Heather (Heather Langenkamp) in New Nightmare, the entity that Freddy represents lives for only one thing: “the death of innocents.” Hans Beckert is a depraved human; Freddy is a symbolic figure standing in for any number of things but ultimately represents the sins of a previous generation visited upon their children due to a lack of taking true responsibility for their actions. In a sense, however, Freddy is what Hans could become if deprived of his humanity as he presumably is at the end of M. In Nightmare, humanity’s shades of grey are not reflected in its inhuman villain but in the secondary villains — the parents of the Elm Street children.
The narrative of M not only follows Beckert but also the police, gangsters, and common townspeople of Berlin who pursue him. In both films, the legends of the killers have been absorbed so deeply into the respective towns that even the children have created games based on their crimes. In Nightmare, it is the ubiquitous jump rope chant, “one, two, Freddy’s coming for you,” that permeates not only the first film but the entire franchise. In M, the children play a kind of “eenie-meanie” elimination game in which several stand in a circle with one in the middle. The child in the middle points to those in the circumference saying:
“Just you wait, it won’t be long,
The man in black will soon be here,
With his cleaver’s blade so true,
He’ll make mincemeat out of you!”
The first appearance of Beckert is his shadow, complete with fedora, over one of the public notices about him. In Nightmare, Freddy’s alleyway appearance in Tina’s dream that leads to her death is preceded by his shadow on a wall, an image very reminiscent of this moment in M.
As M unfolds, we see just how on edge the city has become. A kindly and innocent old man is roughed up for telling a little girl the time after she asks and having a brief conversation with her. We learn that local police are stretched far beyond their means, with the Commissioner admitting to a local politician, “my riot squads don’t get a moment’s peace,” and “the homicide squad doesn’t even get time to change clothes, they’re constantly on call.” The investigation has led only to dead ends with eyewitnesses unable to agree on much of anything. In one case, two men argue over the color of one of the victim’s caps. Incidentally, one says red, the other green, a detail that will cause the ears of any Elm Street fan to perk up. The police constantly raid area criminal hangouts in their attempts to find the killer, prompting local crime syndicates to get involved in the investigation as the increased police presence is having a negative effect on their cash flow. These criminals engage the local beggars in the hunt, which leads to one of them marking Beckert with a chalked “M” on his back. He is pursued into an office building at which point M turns into something of a heist film, cutting between Beckert’s feeble attempts to escape and the band of seasoned burglars and bank robbers drilling, chiseling, and smashing their way to him.
After capturing Beckert, these seedier elements of society stage a trial for him in the depths of an abandoned distillery where he faces the burglars, gamblers, beggars, and sex workers of the city he has terrorized. It is in this sequence that M truly earns its greatness. As the mob cries out for his blood, Beckert pleads that he has no choice but to kill. In a long and compelling monologue that proves the greatness of Lorre’s abilities as an actor, Beckert cries, “But I can’t help it! I can’t…I really can’t…help it!” He goes on to describe walking down streets feeling as though he is being followed by a shadowy version of himself. “And with me run the ghosts of mothers and children. They never go away. They’re always there…except…when I’m doing it…when I…” He claims that he doesn’t remember what he has done and then pleads to his accusers, “who knows what’s inside me? How it screams and cries out inside me when I have to do it! Don’t want to! Must!”
The Safecracker (Gustaf Gründgens), the head of the criminal enterprise known as Der Schränker, then stands and gives his response:
“The accused has stated that he can’t help himself. In other words, he must commit murder. With that, he has pronounced his own death sentence. A man who claims that he’s compelled to destroy the lives of others — such a man must be extinguished like a bonfire! Such a man must be obliterated! Wiped out!”
I take the time to include these longer quotations because M is ultimately a discussion that presents various arguments for and against mob justice and the death penalty. Beckert’s “lawyer” argues against Safecracker, saying that compulsion means that Beckert cannot be held responsible for his actions under the law and should be treated in a mental institution. Safecracker pushes back that the insanity defense will only lead to Beckert’s eventual release and more death. A sex worker in the gallery pleads, “why don’t you ask the mothers? […] Think you’d get mercy from any of them for murdering their kids?” This rouses the mob who begin to rush toward Beckert with the intention to kill him.
If M ended here, it could lead directly into A Nightmare on Elm Street. Even with the short epilogue in which Beckert is taken to trial, it is vague enough that he could be released on a technicality and burned to death by the angry parents of his victims. In the lengthy documentary Never Sleep Again about the making of the Elm Street franchise, Wes Craven, Robert Englund, and Heather Langenkamp all weigh in on the moral issue of whether vigilante justice is justified in cases like Hans Beckert and Freddy Krueger. Craven and Englund seem to indicate the negative, but Langenkamp, a mother, implies that it may be the only solution to a problem like Freddy.
Both M and A Nightmare on Elm Street wrestle with these issues, with both explicitly indicating that vigilante justice and the death penalty, be it at the hands of the state or the mob, do not really solve the problem. They delve deeply into the nature of monsters and the many guises they take, whether their intentions are for good, like the townspeople in M or the parents in Nightmare, or evil like the men they destroy.
M ends with three mourning mothers sitting side by side as Beckert’s sentence of death is being read. One of them speaks these words, which are left to ring in the minds of the audience: “This will not bring our children back. One has to keep closer watch over the children! All of you!” This is also one of the themes of Nightmare. The adults of Elm Street brought Freddy upon their children through their actions of years before, but also through their inattention and disbelief in his return in a different guise. As the mothers of M indicate, Beckert may be gone, but others just like him will return, and return, and return. 🩸
Brian Keiper is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Brian’s also written for Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central, F This Movie!, Ghastly Grinning, and others. Follow him on Twitter @Brianwaves42.
Visit MANOR’s official website: MANORHQ.com.
© 2022 Manor Entertainment LLC