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Villain Overview

Just you wait a little while, the nasty man in black will come. With his little chopper, he will chop you up!
~ The children's song on Hans.
Who will believe me? Who knows what it is like to be me?
~ Beckert pleading for mercy.

Hans Beckert is the protagonist villain of the 1931 film M. He is a pedophile and serial killer who targets young children, primarily girls, creating general panic and causing both the police and organized crime to come after him. Hans is also known for whistling the tune of "In the Hall of the Mountain King" throughout the film.

He was portrayed by the late Peter Lorre, who also played Le Chiffre in the 1954 television adaptation of the James Bond novel Casino Royale, Signor Ugarte in Casablanca, and Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon.

Biography

That is a nice ball you have.
~ Hans' first line, to Elsie.

In the film's first scenes, Hans is seen luring Elsie Beckmann, a little girl, with a balloon and is later confirmed to have killed her offscreen. Later, police investigations are shown establishing that there is a serial child murderer on the prowl. A local crime syndicate is also looking for the killer since his crime spree has led to more police patrolling the streets, which is bad for "business". One criminal identifies Hans as the killer with some help from the balloon salesman from the beginning, and marks his jacket with the letter "M" so his associates can track him.

The criminals capture Hans and bring him before a "kangaroo court" presided by a criminal panel, expecting to lynch him regardless of the outcome. Hans claims he cannot control his homicidal urges, that he is compelled to commit his terrible crimes, for which he feels great remorse, by "the fire, the voices, the torment" raging in his mind. He then claims that the other criminals have no right to judge him because they are criminals by choice, while he cannot control himself. The criminals are unmoved by his pleas and swarm him as he tries to escape. However, the police arrive just in time and arrest everyone in the room.

The film ends before the real court of law declares Hans' sentence, leaving his fate ambiguous.

Quotes

Hans Beckert: I demand to be handed over to the jurisdiction of the common law!
Schränker: That would suit you, wouldn't it? So that you can invoke paragraph fifty-one… [...] And spend the rest of your life in an institution at the state's expense ... And then you'd escape… or else there'd be a pardon and there you are, free as air, with a pass, protected by the law because of mental illness. Off again chasing little girls. No, no. Very dry. We're not going to let that happen.
~ Hans after capture.
Hans Beckert: I can't help what I do! I can't help it, I can't…
Criminal: The old story! We never can help it in court!
Hans Beckert: What do you know about it? Who are you anyway? Who are you? Criminals? Are you proud of yourselves? Proud of breaking safes or cheating at cards? Things you could just as well keep your fingers off. You wouldn't need to do all that if you'd learn a proper trade, or if you'd work. If you weren't a bunch of lazy bastards. But I… I can't help myself! I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me, the fire, the voices, the torment!
~ Hans explains his "curse" to other criminals.
It's there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently, but I can feel it there. It's me, pursuing myself! I want to escape, to escape from myself! But it's impossible. I can't escape, I have to obey it. I have to run, run… endless streets. I want to escape, to get away! And I'm pursued by ghosts. Ghosts of mothers and of those children… they never leave me. They are always there… always, always, always! Except... when I do it, when I… Then I can't remember anything. And afterwards I see those posters and read what I've done, and read, and read… did I do that? But I can't remember anything about it! But who will believe me? Who knows what it's like to be me? How I'm forced to act… how I must, must… don't want to, must! Don't want to, but must! And then a voice screams! I can't bear to hear it! I can't go on! I can't… I can't…
~ Hans discusses his "curse".

Trivia

  • The reward for capturing him according to a paper was of 10000 marks, or 6210.66 dollars.
  • Hans used a red pencil for his letter to the press.
  • According to the director Fritz Lang in a 1963 interview, he based Beckert on many real German serial killers, including Fritz Haarmann, Carl Großmann (both of whom are mentioned in the film), Peter Kürten, and Karl Denke.
  • Before this role, Peter Lorre had mainly been a comedic actor. Though he was thrilled to play such a major part, Peter Lorre came to hate it later as people tended to associate him with being a child murderer.
  • Fritz Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou collaborated on the screenplay, wanting to create a film based on "the ugliest, most utterly loathsome crime." The first script they produced was about a man who sent vulgar and anonymous letters; however, the couple rejected the story as it was too tame. Ultimately, as Lang recalled, they "decided that the most horrible crime was that of a child murderer."
  • In the 1951 American remake of the movie, the villain's name was changed to Martin W. Harrow, portrayed by the late David Wayne, who also portrayed The Mad Hatter in the 1960s Batman TV series.
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