Thoughts On: M - Justice Hurts


M - Justice Hurts

Thoughts On: M (1931)

Made by Fritz Lang, this is the German film of the series.

Often regarded as one of the greatest German films ever made, M comes from late in the German golden age of cinema, the Weimar period. This era stretched between 1919 and 1933, and it, in short, began after WWI and ended as Hitler took power. After 1929, however, the Weimar Republic of Germany was crumbling under the duress of a Great Depression and massive political upheaval. M, among the likes of The Blue Angel, is one of the last great films to come out of this era, which was itself characterise by an astounding flourishing of cultural arts. On top of this, M is an early German sound film, and Fritz Lang's first.

The sound design of M was, in some ways, quite groundbreaking. In such, we see the highly calculated use of sound that was not afraid of silence. The sound montage present in M in fact uses silence to build tension, to draw the eye and to tell a story. In a torture sequence, for instance, sound is the only real device that is used as a crowd forms around the subject and the camera remains distant:

In this scene a scream is all that signifies that the guard behind the doors is being tortured. The use of imagery here could induce complications. With Lang most likely being unable to just show the man being hurt, he would have to imply it through shadows or a CU of, for example, the man's feet. There is the possibility that this would sensationalise or cheapen this event and its neutral truth as imagery of this kind bears an ambiguity and a weight that would shock or manipulate the audience in a manner that wouldn't fit the rather pensive and illusive tone of this narrative. In using a shot like this, Lang not only avoids this, but incorporates the crowd's reaction into the shot. This is then a key sequence and a motif attached to an integral theme: group responsibility.

Consistently, Lang reverts to this neutral kind of mise en scène, and does so because he juggles very difficult subject matter without wanting to over-invest his audience into, and cloud them with, the emotions of the narrative. Looking to a shot like this, such an idea becomes very clear:

The child murderer that this narrative is centered on is introduced through shadow. The collision of the shadow, the 'wanted' sign and the child's ball within this shot translate its subtext effortlessly and economically. Here we are then seeing basic units of information captured without sensationalism. We then know the murderer by his actions, but are not given judgement - that we must assimilate on our own.

The serial killer's whistle as a sound motif, or Leitmotif (and M is one of the very first films to use one of these), also captures this controlled projection of information. Whilst a haunting, tromping orchestrated version of the killer's whistle would signify his presence with greater emphasis, Lang holds back and thus secures a much more sinister, realistic tone. And, again, this is all to leave this film asking questions rather than answering them.

This reserved cinematic language is then key as we move deeper and deeper into the narrative, because, as anyone who has seen this before will know, this isn't a film that is just about vengeance. M also isn't just about children being murdered, and nor is it just about their killer being captured. As Lang has said, this film has one clear aim: to tell parents to look after their children. This is a very difficult thing to hear as Lang is seemingly disregarding the true human emotion that is manifested when you lose a child. Whilst he is arguably not necessarily doing this (at least not completely), Lang does shows some sympathy for a child murderer on the grounds that he would be viewed, by law, as clinically insane. The reserved cinematic language then comes to symbolise a gaze of the law in many respects. This law, unlike the mob that capture the killer, is disembodied and non-human. And the key difference between the law and the mob is that the law should be incapable of turning the killer into a scapegoat. With the law as a learned, time-tested voice of the past, it judges blindly.

Blind judgement of this kind is rationalised by the hypocrisy of the kangaroo court run by killer judges who are present only so they can continue with their crimes unhindered by the police. And such a contradiction about the unlawful justice that feels right is made so incredibly clear with this shot:

When something steps into the room, when what we can assume is the law enters, everyone surrenders without a word. They know they are in the wrong. Even though it is within in human nature to want to kill a child murderer, so, it seems, is the surrender to the will of the blind law. This may be because we inherently recognise that the law, if it is just and functional, abstracts evil from, as well as prevents malevolence from manifesting within, society. The law then recognises evil as a potential within all people - and this is what should make us all equal under the law. As this above scene demonstrates, we may all be somewhat capable of murder. This is the potential evil within us all. Will, however, categorises evil under the law.

Will is an abstract, yet key, aspect of our collective conception of humanity, and thus it must be treated with utmost respect and caution if all of us are to be called human, or if any of us are to deserve the right to our own humanity. And so this humanity isn't just the responsibility of the law or a state, we must all respect and be cautious with others' and our own will; with rights come responsibility. Consequently, if someone is willingly evil, if someone embodies inhumanity, their will can be taken from them: they are put in jail. If someone evil and without humanity has no will, they remain in purgatory until they have one: this seems to be the psychiatric hospital. To have will is to have the ability to recognise and take opportunities as a human who understands the rules of humanity. And so, with the end of this film, we are forced to question what the law will conclude...

Does the killer have will, or does he not? How should it be used against him? Is he a human, and does he deserve to be treated like one?

Whilst it is clear that Lang builds this narrative with neutral cinematic language to have this court case played out within ourselves or between the viewers of the film, something transcends this:

If the law functions as it should, no matter how quick and precisely the truth manifests, some forms of justice will always hurt. This is because justice in a murder case like that of this film is for the law and the state - it will stop the murder of more children and it will keep a mob from becoming inhuman - but offers little resolution to those it rises to defend; it cannot bring back the children of grieving mothers. Because these mothers had will, because they most probably recognise that they could have kept their children from the grips of evil, they will forever be in pain. When Lang suggests that we should look after our children here, he is not then alleviating blame from the killer and placing it upon the mothers of the victims. Lang is instead recognising their pain and the degree to which many of the questions of this narrative do not matter to them; what seemingly matters more than the death of the killer and the fear of parents wanting to do away with evil, is the nurturing of good. So, though it may be just, right and proper that the child murderer is either killed or put in a psychiatric hospital, no matter what happens with him, there will still be evil in the world. Just as long as you have children, we are then told that we should care and love them; cherish and protect what you have as an individual above and before you start seeking a greater justice. Justice is out of human hands, it transcends us, and so we can only surrender to it and, with our will, nurture the good we make and end the evil we do.

The myriad of other complexities that further confound this incredibly difficult narrative ultimately leave Lang's M a true masterpiece. Whilst there is then much more that could be said about this film, I will leave this to you. What are your thoughts on M and all we've covered today?

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Daniel Slack said...

Thanks for the comment. Care to expand?