By Melissa Dizdarevic
Fritz Lang’s M is a murder-mystery thriller starring Peter Lorre (also well-known for his role in Casablanca). A city unites in the search of a child murderer, and police and mobsters run concurrent investigations to bring the man to justice. The film’s legacy is influential not only in filmmaking, but also for its influence on other media.
The conversation reflected just that impact. Henry Bean, screenwriter and director of The Believer; Larry A. Gross, producer and screenwriter of We Don’t Live Here Anymore; and Sarah Williams Goldhagen, author and architecture critic from The New Republic, all came to Fordham this evening to discuss the moral and symbolic qualities that have made this film last.
Who was the protagonist?
This idea both opened and ran throughout the conversation. Bean explained that the dramatic question of this film was whether the murderer would be caught and stopped, and if so, how. The story was focused on the one character that did not appear in full until he was caught. And all the people taking part in the investigation, really everyone, was the protagonist. Even in the end, when Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) made his pleas, he became a sympathetic psycopath–the kind of character that influenced films like Psycho. But Beckert was still making his pleas to a court of criminals, leading Gross to ask, who is really to judge this character?
Were the criminals acting morally?
Bean questioned the criminals’ motive in their investigation for the child-murderer, but other guests thought the criminals acted morally. Director Thane Rosenbaum pointed out that they were moral because they believed in a fundamental sense of right and wrong, and were morally outraged by Beckert’s crime. But Bean disagreed that those morally outraged should be the instruments of justice.
In the film there is a scene where a woman (presumably a criminal) says to “ask the mother who has lost a child” about what should be done. Rosenbaum noted that this may be the first time victim’s rights appears in film, and that there is something to be said for the satisfaction of those who were the victims. Bean strongly disagreed, explaining that such considerations do not place well in a system of justice.
The impact of modernization.
The question of the kind of justice in the film was also one that sparked a question of modernization. The guests discussed the purpose of the justice system, with some siding on the idea that the point is to escape the personal vendetta. This division was brought particularly to light in the “trial” scene where the “defense counsel” presented a modern defense, but was really presenting it to a court of vigilantes.
Modernization was also physically seen in the film. Goldhagen noted the dichotomy of the modern and sleek exterior of buildings and their rather old and cluttered interiors. This showed clearly the quickness of Germany’s modernization, and how not everything was able to “catch up” with the times. The same could be said in the film of the institutions, that the investigation techniques could not keep up with the crime. As Goldhagen also pointed out, where the murderer is finally caught is the only modern interior of a building we see. And, Gross added, he is caught in the old cluttered attic of that building!
Along with modernization was the idea of an improvement in technology. And yet, as Rosenbaum pointed out, even with all the forensic investigation the police had done, the saving grace was identification by a blind man, using his senses to solve the crime. He added that the technology provides an additional layer, for it is the repeated scenes of the toy shops and moving gadgets that provided the very lure Beckert needed to commit his crime.
The conversation closed with a mention of the closing scene of the film: the mothers of the lost children, weeping, and appearing as the vision of the Fates.