Horrific cases of child abuse are never far from the headlines. One such, I will never forget. The perpetrator raped and strangled a three year old boy to death. Unimaginably, this so called human, revived the boy and repeated the attack a second and final time. An apt punishment in my view would have been to apply the same sequence on this criminal – only much more carefully. This way the process could be continued for a long as possible before his ultimate expiration. Of course, that is an entirely visceral reaction on my part, but in order to ensure the safety of its citizens – especially children – society must proceed with a bit more circumspect.
This brings me to a 1931 German called “M,” starring Peter Lorre and directed by Fritz Lang. Children are disappearing and turning up raped and murdered to the horror of the citizens of
Law and order scrambling to apprehend the fiend and sooth the city, the public takes matters into its own hands. They ultimately locate Lorre and put him on trial in a makeshift, subterranean courtroom of their own.
The entire community frothing at the mouth, the vigilante leadership manages to pull off a reasonable semblance of justice, where Lorre is represented and actually makes it to the stand to defend himself.
But like a mongoose in a den of cobras, “M” stands no chance in cross examination. The crowd seething for blood is hushed when the question of why is finally presented and answered.
“Because, I can’t help myself,” Lorre pleads in search of empathy.
What maybe one of the most profound moments in the history of film, I was utterly shocked and defines what is meant by a society that proceeds with circumspect.
You can’t have arrived where we are now without hearing the empathy Lorre sought. Society understands that M’s aren’t usually born, they are the end result of another abuser, and all the safeguards currently in place required enough inquisitive minds to unravel the impetus of these individuals.
And that’s what I found so stunning when first seeing this film. How did a filmmaker from the 1930s have the courage to pose this question – especially as the Nazis were knocking at the door? I guess it does show that a segment of German society was still functioning rationally, and our democracy aside, had such a movie been made in 1930s America, the filmmakers would probably have been lynched.
That sadly implies that the cycle-of-abuse realization was a long time coming in this country, and probably came much quicker once societal rationality was restored in
Germany after the war.