Film storytellers who aim to make strong moral statements may choose to rely on extreme, controversial perspectives in order to get their message across. For example, Liliana Cavani in “The Night Porter” (1974), wishing to express the power of romantic love, selected a Nazi torturer and his female victim as a pair of star-crossed lovers. Similarly, Lars von Trier in “Breaking the Waves” (1996), striving to emphasize that a wife can achieve saint-like enlightenment by submitting unquestioningly to her husband’s will, made the husband a sexually obsessed paraplegic who forces his wife into the life of prostitution. In my opinion, both filmmakers failed to cope with their unmanageable material and fell into relishing of sadomasochistic aspects of perverted relationships they attempted to justify. Extreme perspective is a risky method, demanding highly developed taste and a great deal of healthy rationality from any artist who wishes to use it. As a significantly more successful example stands out Merian C. Cooper and Earnest B. Shoedsack’s “King Kong” (1933), in which the power of a femme fatale to ensnare and destroy even the most resourceful and violent male was famously illustrated by pitting a seemingly innocent and helpless young actress against the murderous oversized ape of the title.
One of the finest examples of cinematic narration that employs such “broad brushstrokes” dramatic technique is “M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder “, written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, and directed by Lang in 1931. The central character of the story is Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre’s arguably most famous role), the maniac who terrorizes Berlin for months by luring and killing children. Hardly any character in film history would seem to deserve less compassion than Hans Beckert – and yet compassion to that monster is precisely the emotion Fritz Lang leads his audience to experience.
So how can it happen that any human being, even though inherently moral, may give in to an impulse to do evil? In what ways does our demonic nature triumph over morality?
According to Fritz Lang, nature and society have conspired to create a loophole in our moral code, allowing any human being to circumvent the inner interdiction of causing harm to others. The loophole that can be metaphorically named “M” consists of justifying an evil deed with high moral considerations. A person may consider any malicious act as acceptable if it’s being done “for the greater good”.
Every one of us needs to see self as “good” and “right”. We need to experience our philosophy as correct. Such sense of moral righteousness forms the basis of our ability to assess the environment, and is therefore essential to our physical survival. And yet none of us is absolutely good. We can only be good by comparison with someone else whom we consider “worse than us”. That’s how very early in life we learn to demonize others in order to justify our actions: we develop the need for having an enemy. We mark the enemy for destruction with the proverbial “M” and feel justified in our desire to destroy.
A serial murderer of children qualifies as the ideal candidate for the role of the enemy. It’s easy to hate him: no one is more ignoble than he is. Even the criminals who have to kill for survival feel justified in their righteous urge to punish Hans Beckert – and up to a certain point in the film we, the audience, may even emphasize with the criminals, who stop at nothing to capture the maniac; we, too, want him killed.
But even though Der Schränker, the master criminal, asserts that his organization must destroy Hans Beckert to protect the children, that’s not the real motivation. The crooks want Hans Beckert out of commission because their criminal business is disrupted by daily raids the police has to conduct in search for the maniac. Saving the children is only a noble pretense that hides purely economic interests… and yet even those interests become secondary by the time the maniac is finally at the mercy of Der Schränker and his kangaroo court of thieves. The masks are off and the audience finally realizes the true underlying motive of the violence: the sheer sadistic pleasure of destroying someone completely helpless.
This notion is best expressed by Hans Beckert himself in his climactic monologue. The monster describes being chased by his “other self” and the ghosts of his victims, and confesses that only the moment of actual killing gives him temporary sense of relief and freedom from guilt.
When neighbors write anonymous letters to the police about each other, accusing each other of being child murderers; when drinking buddies spontaneously decide to ostracize one of their own and expose him as a pedophile; when a street bully towers over a little old man and then drags him to a police – all these events in the film are rationalized by the hunt for the child murderer, but in reality the urge to expose a maniac is only a pretense: people simply use it to feel justified in their hatred to their neighbors and in their desire to dominate and destroy another human being. The crooks set up their court not because they want to punish the evil deed, but simply because they need, for once, to experience the sense of liberating righteousness while committing a murder.
The true reason for violence is the sensation of power it can give. The wicked do evil so that they can experience the doing. Anything else is merely a rationalization. The existence of such rationalization is the main theme treated by Fritz Lang in his film. The message is twofold: we must be able to recognize the truth when someone is using a beautiful justification for an evil deed; and even more importantly, we must be aware of our own inherent desire to do evil, and must prevent our attempts to use the loophole in our ethics and justify our potential wickedness by any kind of greater good. No matter how monstrous our enemy may be, if we succumb to hatred, we destroy our own souls.
You may think this idea is way too abstract, but it’s immediately applicable to the current reality – to any current reality. The ruse of justifying evil actions with noble considerations is well-known and has been used consistently all through history. People were tortured and killed in the name of true faith and spiritual enlightenment, salvation of their own souls, national unity, protection of society, duty, and, on many occasions, even out of pacifism (as in “Sergeant York”, dir. by Howard Hawks, 1941). When my country attacks another country on the opposite side of the globe, whether to destroy a tyrant, establish the democracy or protect innocent civilians, I am repelled, because I know that all these beautiful motives hide the ugly truth. Wars are waged for money, influence, power – and for the joy of killing.