That Heaven’s Vault Should Crack: M (1931/2000)

Art, they say, is timeless. But celluloid has a depressing tendency to degrade. One of the biggest boons of living in the digital age is getting to see old classics with the quality they are meant to be screened in, if not better (though Side by Side (2012) explains how digital hardware is even more prone to irrecoverable deterioration). With technical issues overcome, what reveals itself is a film that hasn’t aged a day, and that is actually more innovative than most films currently playing. And the themes are especially apropos of the political climate of the US today. In every sense of the word, Fritz Lang’s M (1931/2000) is a classic.

Berlin is being terrorized by a murderer of young girls, sparking McCarthy-esque fear in the streets and desperate measures by both the police and criminal elements. Caught by the criminals, psychotic murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) ends up in the hands of the law (after giving a melodramatic yet entirely pathetic monologue), but this tidy bow on top is subverted in the last lines: The mother of a victim exhorts us, We must all look closely after our children.

This plot, already groundbreaking in at least two genres, is conveyed with utmost technical daring. Lang’s use of sound in this, his first talkie, is never relegated to a record of quotidian noises, as much foley art is used for today; rather, he only lets us hear the salient sounds, using sound to direct our attention as skillfully as he uses the camera. In one sequence of subterfuge and general sneaking around, the lack of any sound at all speaks volumes. The camera use, too, is dazzling, with extensive use of tracking and push-pulls, and with one spectacularly slow pan near the end. The push-pulls are especially astounding: One long shot goes through a glass window from outside to execute a series of rotations, surveying the room. Meanwhile, the canted angles of heyday Expressionism are sparingly used; aside from mostly practical shots, only a handful of odd angles stick out in the mind.

Of all the people who supposedly die in the modern city from various causes (related to pollution, poverty, crime, the kind of driver that nearly runs over a girl in the film, or what have you), only three girls are actually murdered in the film. It is the arbitrariness of the murders that is the source of people’s fear: Your little girl is a complete innocent, yet she may be brutally murdered however upstanding a person you are. Unlike illness, drunk driving, or costly expenses, there is no way to prevent your child’s death that still maintains the essential routines of daily life. Mass fear turns to mass hysteria when a newspaper prints the accurate assertion that anyone could be the murderer, even the person beside you right now. People in the film start reporting others for even looking at young girls on the street, and the police engage in sweeping and invasive actions under public pressure. Now, it is also true that the person next to you could become the future leader of their country, but lacking the amplification of fear, this is a possibility we rightly disregard (save for in a very few cases). Just because something is true doesn’t make it significant; one must consider probabilities.

The above analysis could be applied wholesale to the current debate over firearm regulation in the United States. A school massacre is alarming and devastating because the victims are children (who are viewed in the culture as completely innocent), the occurrence of the massacre is arbitrary, and there is no way to guarantee it won’t happen again without severely disrupting the rhythms of day-to-day life. Some are using this as a reason to turn schools into small-scale police states; others cast around frantically for various scapegoats (mental illness, lack of training, lack of firearm regulation, FBI incompetence), hoping to kill all birds with one stone. The truth of the matter is that there are no guarantees, only probabilities; therefore, probabilities matter. To choose between a guaranteed solution and throwing one’s hands in the air is a false choice.

On a higher level, Hans’s fate is caught between death by a tribunal of criminals and lawful incarceration in a mental asylum. On the one hand, the criminals are correct in saying that killing Hans prevents any further acts of murder by his hand. On the other hand, Hans’s appointed tribunal defense attorney (presumably also a criminal) argues that killing him would be unfair, for he is not agentially responsible for his actions. Usually, we would say that a criminal’s life has meaning outside of their crime. But Hans is psychotically compulsive, wracked by overpowering guilt that is only alleviated when he is killing another girl. Does his life still have meaning then? The film doesn’t go so deep, but I would argue that it does: Suffering can also be meaningful, and whether it is for Hans only Hans can say. Since he hasn’t committed suicide, it seems it does. The criminals argue that he might escape and kill once more, but, again, we shouldn’t let our pursuit of the impossible ideal lead us to ignore other salient aspects of the situation. Racists and neo-Nazis are despicable specimens of the human race, but they are still human; to say that they should all be exterminated just makes us mini-Stalins. So, if they walk among us, they must interact with us, and we might as well engage their hearts and minds. As many reviews of this film point out, one can understand without sympathizing.

Outrage (or outrage at the outrage) is natural; it’s responding with reason that elevates us.

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