M and the Making of Peter Lorre

by Anne Sharp

“M” is by far the best film made by the husband and wife team of director Fritz Lang and screenwriter Thea von Harbou, and casting Peter in it made it legendary. Lang knew this and for years he courted Peter to work for him again, but Peter refused because Lang had treated him so abominably during the making of “M.” While shooting the film’s famous trial sequence, Lang had the actors who carried Peter into the scene throw him around until he was bruised, exhausted and nearly hysterical, because Lang wanted him that way when he delivered his big speech. Lang’s tendency to approach actors like an abusive animal trainer must have been one of the reasons why he never succeeded in establishing himself as an A-list Hollywood director (the Screen Actors Guild for one would have cracked down on him.) During the late 1940s it would have particularly benefitted both Lang and Peter to work together again in the burgeoning field of film noir, at which they both excelled, and which they had together helped to create with “M,” which introduced the modern police procedural to cinema and with its atmospheric realism served as a template for all urban crime thrillers that would follow.

Lang and Harbou specialized in films with an element of fantasy, such as “Metropolis,” “Das Indische Grabmal,” and the Dr. Mabuse series. “M” was a departure from this, set in the everyday life of Weimar-era Berlin, depicting ordinary citizens, criminals, and police and forensics experts at work in their Alexanderplatz headquarters. Lang said that one of the reasons he chose Peter for the role of Hans Beckert, the serial killer stalking Berlin, was because he fit this world, that he looked like a real, everyday person. But obviously no one would choose Peter Lorre to play a man who was not a little out of the ordinary. At twenty-six Peter still had a soft, childish look about him (he had specialized in playing confused adolescents onstage, as in “Engineers in Ingolstadt,” the play that Lang first saw him in) and this gave an uncanny aspect to casting him as a murderer who targets children. It would be natural for little girls to be on their guard if they ran into a big scary man in the street, but if a funny, cute little boy-man came along they might make friends with him, and if he was very nice and bought them a balloon or a bag of candy they might agree to a playful suggestion to go into the bushes with him. Peter plays Hans as an infantile creature whose primal urges are easily read when he makes monster faces at himself in his bedroom mirror or stares at a shop window full of knives after spotting a tempting little girl. His lack of self-control is frightening, and makes the race between law enforcement and the city’s criminals to hunt him down all the more urgent. When his criminal avengers finally trap him and confront him with his crimes, he panics like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. We can’t help feeling instinctively protective of him, and we believe him when he pleads that he’s helpless to stop himself from killing.

The ingenious dramatic trajectory of “M,” which at first encourages viewers to fear and hate Hans, then forces them to confront his vulnerable humanity and question their own capacity for compassion, depends entirely on Peter’s presence in the role, and not just because he played his part with great sensitivity and insight, in spite of Lang’s beatings. Lang’s behavior said more about his own limitations as a director than Peter’s as an actor, but he was correct in understanding that there is a limit to what Peter Lorre the actor can make us believe about himself, and this is where Lang’s manipulative use of Peter as a human being really was brilliant. As we watch him in an extreme state of genuine exhaustion and despair, we take his emotional temperature and realize he couldn’t possibly have killed those children. Even though we virtually saw him do it (only virtually, since neither Lang nor any other commercial filmmaker then or now could get away with literally showing a man butchering little girls onscreen), our instincts tell us that he is innocent. The last thing we see of Peter/Hans as he crouches on the floor like a terrified hamster is a reassuring hand protectively lowering onto his shoulder, and we are relieved. The final line of the film, in which the mother of one of Hans’ victims says that we must all take better care of our children, suggests to us that Hans himself is one of these children.  

If Hitler hadn’t been so successful and Peter had somehow been allowed to continue his career in German-speaking Europe without interruption, “M” would certainly have had a lasting impact on his career, though much less so as art and entertainment in Europe tends to be far less dependent on the depiction of pathology and violence than in America. The German critic Jessica Ridders has pointed out to me the similarities between Peter and Heinz Ruehmann, who was Peter’s costar in the play “Squaring the Circle” around the time that “M” was being made (and was less than thrilled when Peter insisted on being billed over him.) Ruehmann was an ethnic German, small like Peter, about the same age, with a sweet, boyish face and longish nose that was a little too funny for him to be a conventional romantic leading man. Ruehmann had a naturalistic way with screen acting similar to Peter’s, and like him carried himself with a certain relaxed poise, radiating humor and intelligence. Peter could have played many of Ruehmann’s film roles, such as the preoccupied composer in “Ich und die Kaiserin” or the writer who goes undercover as a schoolboy in the classic Christmas comedy “Die Feuerzangenbowle.”

Ruehmann was on his way to becoming an A-list star of the German cinema when the Nazis took over, and like other stars who stayed in Germany did what he had to do to succeed by pleasing his Nazi overlords. When the Allies conquered Nazi Germany he was labeled a collaborator and banned from making films for several years, but when he made his comeback he was a bigger star than ever, playing valiant survivors who find a way to triumph against the odds, such as Iron Gustav, driving his horse-drawn cab from Berlin to Paris to protest the takeover by motorized taxis, and the aging veteran in “Der Kapitan von Kopenick” determinedly waging war with bureaucrats over his pension.  These would have been wonderful late-career roles for Peter, though it must be said that Ruehmann had a tremendous advantage over Peter in the 1950s and 1960s in that he was still handsome, trim and spry at a time when Peter had completely let himself go. But then if Peter hadn’t been constantly told how ugly he was all his life, he might have made more of an effort to preserve that baroque beauty that Lang first saw in him.

(c) by Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.

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