Dir. Fritz Lang
Over the course of time repetitious opinions, actions and thoughts slowly develop into a sturdy and sometimes obstinate system of beliefs. From these convictions arise momentary conflicts of interest generally extending from questions of morality, justice and other abstract but highly debatable subject matter. It is these subjects that shed light on the falsely assumed objectivity of belief systems and how they are actually designed to suit a purpose: simplify. If a figure of authority can directly say “this is right and that is wrong” than the whole problem of deciphering the mentality that allows say, a premeditated murder to be punished and a “crime of passion” to go unpunished, is solved. Justice and the like take on a coldly mathematical logic. However, what is really occurring in such a scenario is the neglecting of idiosyncrasies in favor of a highly relative and questionable system of equity. In terms of crime and punishment Fritz Lang's historic M unearthed a terrifying and blatant discrepancy: passion is far too often equated with injustice. This fundamental theory extends not just to realm of criminality but also to the law. When dealing with 'crimes of passion', 'uncontrollable impulses' or any matter pertaining to justice, it is paramount that both impulse and passion be abandoned in the name of integrity and truth.
Before Little Children, Silence of the Lambs, Night of the Hunter, and so many other dramas took on the mysterious and taboo subject of pathological murders, Fritz Lang designed a complex and riveting film about this same psychological addiction. Based on a German child murder from the 1920s, M begins as a prerequisite to Hollywood's addictive film noir, with intrigue and mysterious, forbidden lust. It unfurls with focused constraint as tension and panic sweeps over a city in the height of fear over what might now be called 'homeland security'. Lang unveils, occasionally with uncomfortable but revelatory levels of social satire, the suspicion and paranoia of a city in the throws of psychological insecurity. Although the police do their best, and also in private moments outline the hopelessness of their cause, they are unable to boil down the thousands of leads (most of them insanely vague accusations from one neighbor against another) into any sustainable evidence. A group of local mobsters decide to take matters into their own hands and organize the Union of Beggars to keep a watch over the city (note: because they have nothing better to do, right?). The Murderer (Peter Lorre) is eventually cornered by the mob and forced into a Kafkaesque trial in which his sentence is essentially already known. He begs the jury, who are actually a horde of lawless, hypocritical bigots, to comprehend that it is his internal demons that cause him to kill; that he does not want to, but he must. Although it almost appears that a few of the hundreds in attendance at this most theatrical of trials believe and pity him, the rest want to see him torn to shreds. He is rescued in a moment of Biblical divinity by the police who escort him to his lawful trial where it is assumed he is placed in an asylum until he can be “cured”.
When it comes to films about pathological murderers, a good many of them often eschew answering the difficult question of what makes a killer kill in favor of suspense and drama. Whether it's because the writers don't have the capacity to articulate the root of the illness or more likely that their assumed audience will be bored by psychological theorizing, the daunting question is elided from the plot with relative ease. In M the question is not ignored and it is in the Murderer's confession that he seeks to convey the depths of his affliction and his powerlessness, not only to his 'jury' but to us as well. There is no doubt that this sort of first person view of something so terribly anathematic, in the eyes of our worldly culture, is both fascinating and disturbing. We want so badly to understand, but at the same time an understanding complicates our need for cut and dry justice. Crime and equivocal punishment. As much as we find the susceptibility to mental disease in others tantalizing we'd ultimately rather have a proclamation of guilt or innocence to sooth our mind rather than irritate it with unending questions, and concerns over the 'correct' (that is, morally acceptable) thing being done.
It is the film's final sequence where the two trials (the unlawful and the lawful, which Lang compares throughout the film, both cinematically and philosophically) are seen for their stark contrasts, that I am painfully reminded of trials I have seen on television in the last few years. Homicide or manslaughter trial coverage almost inevitably includes the closing statements made not only by the lawyers but by the family of the deceased as well. They are almost always emotionally charged accusations that have little or no bearing on the case at hand. In an unprofessional and grossly upsetting means of compensation, the family members are given their few minutes to charge the defendant with the crimes he most certainly has already been acquitted or condemned of. What's sad is how these moments end up having the greatest effect on public opinion. In the face of iniquity a great many more crimes of injustice may be committed. No one should be deprived of their right to grieve, but when that grief is misused as a pulpit then the real tragedy has occurred. The last moment of the film shows a weeping mother, still beside herself with anguish saying “This will not bring our children back”. It is in this profound statement that the paradox of murder trials can be found: neither death, nor life imprisonment, nor institutionalization can bring back the dearly departed. Justice is almost never simple, but in grasping its subjectivity we might discover that an unflinching claim for retribution might be a pathology all its own.