This week my movie mate, Tom, came over with a dvd of Fritz Lang’s 1931 film “M.” This classic black and white crime thriller tells the story of a German community’s response to a series of child murders. The police and the criminal network of the city both mobilize to track down the culprit, using almost indistinguishable techniques: highly bureaucratic organization directed exclusively by men, their discussions wreathed in tendrils, building to clouds, of cigarette and cigar smoke.
Cutting through the haze, the head of the underworld comes up with the idea of delegating the task of surveillance to the “beggars’ union.” One step ahead of the police, the beggars find their man, and the criminal network swings into action. A chalky “M” slapped on the back of the suspect’s coat brands him, he is captured, and brought to a kangaroo court in an abandoned factory. And here the moral argument of the film becomes clear.
The murderer defends himself by claiming that his actions are involuntary – he is continually persecuted by demons and by the ghosts of the mothers of the children he has killed. He finds relief only when he “does it,” but remembers nothing of his actions, only learning of them through the newspapers later. As he speaks of his compulsion, several of the criminals in his audience are shown nodding, evidently identifying with the unconscious, unwilled nature of his experience.
The crime boss responds by declaring that the man has condemned himself by his own words: he is clearly a danger to society and must be done away with. But in keeping with the way the criminal network mirrors every other aspect of respectable society, the accused has been appointed a defence counsel who is permitted to plead on his behalf. The lawyer speaks courageously of the rights of the accused, demanding that he be handed over to the police and tried according to the rule of law; he is sick and ought to be sent to an asylum, not executed.
The mob are not convinced; a woman raises her voice on behalf of the mothers who have lost their children, arguing that they should be the ones to determine the murderer’s fate. This incites the crowd and they move to attack the man, but just at this moment, the police arrive. The members of the criminal mob all raise their hands – suddenly the tables have turned and they are the ones exposed to potential arrest for attempted murder. We see a hand laid very gently on the accused’s shoulder, about to lead him away to another scene of judgment.
The final speech of the film is given to a bereaved mother we met in the opening sequences of the film, who declares that we all share in responsibility for such murders – we must take better care of our children.
After we finished watching, Tom said he had felt himself identifying, for a moment, with the mob who wanted to lynch the murderer. He looked at me, “But you didn’t, did you? You were the lawyer.” He was half right. I did identify with the lawyer, not so much as a defender of due process, or the institution of the law, but as the protector of the accused against the passions of the mob. I have a strange sympathy for criminals – or more specifically for the isolated individual accused (even fairly) of crime.
My maternal instincts lead me not to share the mob’s anger, but to fear for the fate of their lonely target. At a gut level, I feel that every criminal is in danger of being scapegoated, punished personally for a crime with collective dimensions, caught in a social web spun of passion and sticky prejudice, which sweep the rights of the unpopular away, rather than the even strands of measured judgment which would keep them intact. Where mob passions take charge, the punishment of individuals risks becoming like the persecution of Christ, with the difference that punishing an ordinary human being for the sins of a whole society (its failures to “look after its children”) brings no redemption. To use a more ancient metaphor, the concern is that without the safeguards provided by law (and love), crime and punishment operate on the ouroboric model of the serpent which endlessly devours its own tail, a single force, constantly feeding upon and regenerating itself, with no opportunity for justice or mercy to break the cycle.
Given its historical context, an obvious reading of Lang’s magnificently ambiguous film would be to take the marked man accused of child murder who is ignorant of his crimes, only learning of them in the popular press, as a figure of the Jew, while the portrayal of a society in which the underworld and the institutions of law and order are disturbingly difficult to distinguish would be a prescient portrait of Nazi Germany. But there are contemporary parallels that also spring to mind.
Lately, I have repeatedly come across references to the strange conspiracy theory of David Icke, who teaches that the human race, and the US administration in particular, has been infiltrated by shape-shifting reptilian aliens. It is a more extravagant, imaginative version of the idea that any powerful (or simply unpopular) person who shows signs of the ruthlessness that is encouraged by the system is a psychopath, a being that is constitutionally, and irreparably, different to the rest of the human species. It is worth noting that these theories make the same rhetorical moves that the Nazis used to brand the Jews as inhuman, and deserving of elimination. But the interesting aspect of the alien reptile theory is that it also evokes the sense of an ouroboric element alive in society, writhing beneath the surface of liberal institutions like the rule of law. Lang’s film points to the idea that the real reptile, its jaws closing on its own thrashing tail, is a social (or these days, social media) body – a mob moved by paranoid fear and generalized anger, which generates and feeds upon the dangerous attitudes it claims to expose and eliminate.