Great Moments in Cinema: M
Human beings have long wrestled with the distinction between justice and revenge. This is a debate that has raged on for centuries, and it continues to divide people to this day. Countless articles have been written about the efficacy of the death penalty, with some seeing it as a just punishment for those who have committed heinous crimes, while others portray it as a bloodthirsty act of retribution. Many people are vocal about their dissatisfaction with the rule of law. They believe that the justice system does not go far enough, and that it coddles criminals too much. Some of these people even decide to take matters into their own hands, and attempt to mete out what they see as a fitting punishment against those who have wronged them. Some cheer them on, while others merely see it as a petty act of revenge. It is one of the great philosophical questions that humanity has struggled with since the dawn of civilization, and no doubt we will continue to struggle with it for some time, since it has become obvious that there are no easy answers to be found.
This age-old ideological struggle is at the heart of Fritz Lang’s masterful thriller M (1931), a film that still manages to feel fresh and relevant 80 years after it was first released. And no other scene in the film does a better job of exemplifying the difference between the rule of law and the desire for vengeance better than the kangaroo court sequence, in which the vast network of Berlin’s criminal underworld puts the vile child murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) on trial for his crimes. However, they are not necessarily prosecuting Beckert for the heinous acts he actually committed. Instead, they are judging him for the crime of stirring up the local police, and thus interrupting their own illicit activities.
In the film, Berlin is held in the grip of fear by a child murderer who has been stalking the city streets, killing young girls and mutilating their corpses. The police have been unable to locate the murderer, despite basically instituting martial law as they conduct random raids on all the known criminal hideouts. Obviously, this upsets the leaders of the criminal underworld, and they soon decide to take matters into their own hands. Enlisting the assistance of the city’s network of beggars, they soon learn the identity of the murderer, and set about hunting him down. The murderer, an unassuming man named Hans Beckert, flees, and holes up in an office building downtown. The criminals, led by the officious and cunning Safecracker (Gustaf Gründgens), tear the building apart, and get their hands on Beckert just before the police arrive at the building. The criminals bring Beckert to an old abandoned distillery, where they put him on trial, even going so far as giving him a defense lawyer. Of course, this is all just for show, since the enraged criminals have already determined Beckert’s guilt, and it is only a matter of time before the trial breaks down and they bring Beckert to a harsh justice that looks suspiciously like revenge.
While the entire film is a masterpiece of editing and sound design, the kangaroo court scene is a standout for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Peter Lorre’s incredible performance. He plays Beckert as a man who is tortured by horrible desires that he cannot control. Earlier in the film, he catches a glimpse of a young girl in a mirror, and as he watches her, he is overcome with a murderous desire that borders on orgasmic. There is a part of him that seems to enjoy what he does to these little girls, as he is smiling as takes them around to buy them balloons and candy; but, when faced with retribution for his crimes, Beckert delivers an impassioned speech in which he reveals that he cannot control these terrible urges that compel him to commit murder. Of course, it is impossible to tell how much of this is a lie designed to save him from the swift justice of the crooks and killers who now serve as his jury, but there is obviously something to what he is saying, because there are a number of men in the crowd who are nodding sympathetically as Beckert tries to explain his compulsion. They obviously understand that there is something that compels a person to commit criminal acts, even if they are disgusted by a man who would kill and mutilate prepubescent girls.
Beyond that, though, is the way in which Lang turns the tables on the criminals, and suddenly makes them stand in for the viewer. By putting Beckert on trial themselves, the criminals become almost heroic figures, and they begin to echo the fears of the very society they prey upon. Sure, they may be doing this solely because Beckert has brought the police down upon them like never before, but at the same time, they too are horrified and disgusted by what he has done. As Beckert pleads for his life, Lang cuts to a pair of women who recoil in horror at his words, while another woman stands up and gives a short but emotional speech about the pain of losing a child. That seems to be the distinction that these criminals want to draw between themselves and Beckert. Sure, they may be thieves and even murderers themselves (more on that in a moment), but they would never harm innocent children. Indeed, earlier in the film, the woman who runs a popular criminal hangout tells one of the cops that she “knows a lot of toughs who get all teary-eyed just seein’ the little ones at play.” In other words, they’ll lie, cheat, steal, and kill in the name of business, but they certainly aren’t heartless.
Of course, that argument starts to break down once the criminals put Beckert on trial. To them, he is not a fallible human being who may or may not have a mental disorder. Instead, they call him a monster who must be removed from society, and that they are the ones who should do it. At one point, Safecracker points out that if they turn Beckert over to the police, he will just plead insanity, and then he’ll spend the rest of his days living off the state. This is unacceptable to him, and Safecracker demands that they be allowed to kill Beckert so that he will not be able to harm anyone ever again. Of course, the criminal mastermind remains oddly silent when Beckert’s defense reveals that Safecracker himself is wanted on three counts of murder, but this is not enough to sway the jury’s bloodlust. In their eyes, Beckert is no longer a man, but a rabid beast who must be put down. One has to wonder what the old woman from the bar would have to say about that, considering that earlier she told that same cop to lay off the crooks because “[t]hey’re human beings too.” Would she argue in Beckert’s favor, or would she join the mad rush to lynch the frightened little man?
In many ways, M feels very modern, and is very much the forebear of gritty, intelligent, and gripping thrillers like Seven or Zodiac. This is due in large part to the fact that director Fritz Lang is tackling timeless and universal themes in this film, and he does so with a visionary and forward-thinking style. While he may not provide the answers to the questions he is posing, he nonetheless makes the viewer think about them, and leaves it up to the audience to continue the debate long after the film has ended.