In our world there are heinous crimes the likes of which people will not stand for. There is a cry from the people for justice to be brought down upon the one responsible. In M this cry comes from the people of a city whose children are in peril. Children have been vanishing only to be found later, dead, and with no leads on the case, things are starting to look desperate. It is under these circumstances that an unusual ally comes to the aide of the people: the criminal underworld. However, this allegiance goes on without the knowledge of the common folk and comes to bare when the group eventually buts heads with the police.
The film starts by introducing us to the children and showing us the next victim: Elsie Beckmann. Our first glimpse of authority is the police, an officer shown escorting Elsie across a busy street. This is just a small example, a hint at the generic interpretation of authority figures. It is within this atmosphere that murder takes place and panic sets in among the people. The populace turns on each other in suspicion. Chaos fairly breaks out in the city, people attacking other people for just looking the wrong way at a child and any sort of authority is swept up in it, policemen even getting held back out of the way as people beat a suspect.
As months of unsuccessful leads tic by, the Criminal Secretary contacts the Police Commissioner, berating him for his inability to catch the perpetrator. However, the Commissioner rebuts that he’s sent all his forces out to search every part of the city and surrounding area. His forces are stretched thin and getting tired with the lack of rest. Here the limits of the police’s power finally come to light. They can’t do anything to find this person with what little evidence they have. Eventually, they resort to raids, checking the papers of those caught. Amusingly, in the raid depicted, the police search the joint, called the Crocodile Club, to find all manner of suspicious items, from guns and brass knuckles to eyeglasses and purses. This is the first depiction of the criminal world butting heads with the police. They even deign to mock the inspector leading the raid, that’s how well they know him.
With this raid, the viewer is then transitioned to watching a small group of people waiting in a room nearby the club. This is the first introduction to the heads of the underground. Each man sits at the top of his branch division of the underworld. One is a professional pickpocket, another a cheat obsessed with magic tricks, a third a renowned burglar, and the final a con artist. They wait for their leader. They know him only as Schränker, Safecracker. The con artist admits there’s “No one better from Berlin to San Francisco” after the burglar tells a tale of Safecracker escaping Scotland Yard after a bank heist. These are some of the men that make up the street law. The police may rule with the governmental law, but the criminals play by the laws of the street. This new menace is a threat to their respective operations and they mean to bring him in. The irony of this meeting arrives when the police heads are shown to be having the same exact sort of meeting about the same terror. The conversation goes back and forth almost as if the groups are one, yet they are distinctly different in location and personnel. At one point, a police inspector gives a long speech on just how the perpetrator works. He points out that how the murderer, Beckert, meets the child is completely random, the act unfounded and only happening by pure chance. He says,“Then comes the big question mark.” When the child is found missing and then later discovered to be dead, the police are left without a clue as to who did it. Here the question “What then?” arises. They are stuck without anything to lead them to who the killer might be. The criminals find themselves stuck in the same predicament and both are left at a standstill. This simultaneous depiction puts the two sides of the law at matching levels of authority.
Finally the police arrive at an idea. Since combing the city hasn’t worked, they will check with all prisons, asylums and other such institutions to try and narrow down the list of suspects. On the flip side, it is the clever criminals that finally come up with an ingenious way in which they can monitor the city: recruiting the organization of beggars. The criminal heads bring all the beggars together with the authority of their positions, using them to patrol parts of the city as they go about their daily peddling. In the end, when the murderer targets another child, a blind beggar identifies him by the tune he whistles and sends an aide after him. The boy marks the murderer with an M and so the manhunt begins.
The most prominent scene displaying authority comes near the end of the film. The criminal underworld has caught the murder and stands him on trail with them and the people as judge and jury. The people become the authority and the murderer the one fighting against them. When he confronts them with the fact that he has the right to a fair trial, Safecracker retorts, “You spoke of right just now. We will be your right. Everyone sitting here is an expert in the rule of law!” In this he refers to the fact that almost all gathered have encountered the law and insinuates they all know the ins and outs of it. As Horst Lange explains in his article, “When Beckert stands in front of Schränker, who occupies the position of the judge, the people sit right behind Schränker and he acts as their spokesperson. There is no possibility of a difference between popular will and judicial decision. But when Beckert is sentenced by the state court, the people are sitting in front of the judges, and although the chief judge proclaims that the judgment is rendered “im Namen des Volkes,”[on behalf of the people] they very well might be surprised at what it is. While the judgment might be rendered in their name, they themselves did not render the judgment.” Thus the people did not fulfill their goal, as Beckert was taken from them before they could deal out his punishment.
In the end it was the social authority, comprised of the people and criminal organizations banning together, that caught Beckert while the governmental authority took him in to be tried and sentenced. Even though they worked against each other, eventually the mutual enemy was caught and brought to justice.