Fritz Lange’s M: “I can’t help what I do”

What can you say about this scene from M (1931)? That it’s Peter Lorre’s greatest moment ever. Sure. That it remains one of the most powerful moments in film wherein the audience is asked to identify with a child murdering monster? Absolutely. It’s all that, without question, but it’s also a dramatic portrait of physical and emotional confusion, rage, desperation, and terror that has few—if any equals—in cinema. It’s the terrible reality that monsters exist and even feel, that monsters are people like us.

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3 Responses to Fritz Lange’s M: “I can’t help what I do”

  1. Jared Stein says:

    See, the problem with your blog posts is I think you make these right after you’ve seen the film, in full, beautiful context, and I have to either rely on what I remember of the film or else wait to post. Of course, I’m too impatient for the latter.

    Anyway, you’re spot on in this observation. Almost as unnerving as Lorre protesting is the all-too-knowing taunt, “we never can help it in court“. I think a lot of the power in this scene relies on the audience first echoing what the viewer’s conscience must be saying: the man is evil, and there is no room for pity. But once Lange has let that cut be made, and allowed us the reassurance that, yes, we are one of the judges, not the judged, we get the monologue. “It’s me, pursuing myself.” And the nods. When I see the audience reaction, I can’t help but wonder (and hopefully not equivocate) what if we all bore some chalky mark of our sins on our coats, rather than keeping them inside, behind our calms Dorian Gray faces; signs by which we would know our selves, and each other, and eventually be pursued to justice.

    The purging in this scene reminds me, in contrast, of the closing of Welles’s “The Trial”, where there’s the frustrated and muffled innocence-guilt of Josef K exuding from Perkins as he’s led to his rough, embarrassing, and ineloquent execution. (I try to forget Welles made it an explosion…)

  2. Reverend says:


    Are you sure you didn’t watch M this morning? That is an awesome reading, and goes far beyond my pandering to monster. You’re absolutely dead on, and the affirmation of understanding at his confession are exactly what seals it, and I didn;t realize that til you said.

    I’ll tell you honestly, your comments here about both film and literature have been amazing over the last months, and I am kicking myself for not finding the time to sit down and talk more extensively about all of this stuff together. We really only got that small time in the coffee shop, and then that was it. I truly hope we can find outselves at the same event sometime soon and talk some film/lit shop. For I love Welles’ Trial at several points (the way he captures K going through the tenement and the wood/light framed halls/tunnels is magic film, but there are a few points in that movie that makes one go…what? In fact, I didn’t make the direct connection between M and The Trial until you mentioned them here together—it’s awesome. I guess our next film is Judgment at Nuremberg?

  3. Jared Stein says:

    Thanks, well, I love the stuff and so its rare to get to blather about it.

    Nuremberg is another film I haven’t seen in years. But I’ve been itching to rent it just to force my wife to watch it with me, so I’ll have to push that up the queue on Netflix.

    I said years, but it’s actually almost been 2 decades, and that reminds me of why I’ve seen a lot of the films you talk about: when I was in high school I spent summers in California running my grandfather’s video rental shop. But here’s the crazy part: the store only rented out classic (pre-1970) movies. This seemed totally normal to me, because I already spent most of my weekends watching AMC and Alfred Hitchcock Presents and so on. But my grandfather was a real movie buff, always wanted to be in Hollywood (only ever had a walk-on line in “Duel in the Sun”). So I got to take movies home every night, and since I was a loner, and knew nobody in the California foothills, that suited me just fine.

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