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That’s the year Fritz Lang’s movie “M” was produced. It’s an oldy for sure, starring soft spoken, bulgy eyed Peter Lorre and Ellen Widman.
“M” is the story of Berlin’s police and underworld trying to trackdown a “loathsome child murderer with sexual tendencies”.
I’d never seen the movie before, it’s an old thriller, old as in we’re talking black and white with subtitles. What I found in watching this film was that the way society judges and jumps to conclusions when it comes to those accused of any offense that has sexual undertones hasn’t changed much at all in 87 years.
In a nutshell, the premise of the movie is this, a child serial killer stalks the streets of Berlin. The characters don’t come right out and say that the main person they are hunting is not only a murderer but also a sexual predator, but it’s clearly inferred. They don’t describe how the children’s bodies are found, instead it’s the cleverly veiled “you know what state their bodies were found in”, line, remember it’s 1931 . The chief of police describe’s the villian (and forgive me if I don’t have the exact wording, the premise of the movie caught me by surprise ), as a “sexual fiend or devient”, a “madman”.
Peter Lorre is tracked like a rabid dog.
Anyone on the street seen casually glancing or innocently talking with a child, becomes suspect.
Friends turn on friends. Family turns on family. Concerned citizens become vigilantes ready to beat to death innocent men, bystanders and the like solely because of “mob mentality”. No one cares whether or not they have the “right” person, being “suspect” seems good enough for vigilantes.
Someone is able to use a chalk mark and slap Lorre on the back, leaving the mark of the letter “M” for murderer so he can be more easily hunted. A scarlet letter of sorts.
When he is finally caught by the underworld guys, crooks and thieves themselves, he is hauled off to a dank basement where these quasi-up-standing citizens intend to take justice into their own hands.
The basement room is oddly enough set up like a courtroom. In fact, Peter Lorre is even given someone to act as his defense attorney who pleads that his client be handed over to the real police so that he can receive “a real court trial”.
Peter Lorre gives an outstanding performance as a man that is tormented by his own inner demons over which he has no control. In one particular scene he pleads not for his life but to be rid of the mental instability that overcomes him and forces him to offend time and time again. He is a desperate man that needs treatment for his illness, not death.
The guy sitting at the prosecutor’s table doesn’t want Peter Lorre to see the inside of a “real” courtroom. Doesn’t want him to be able to plead insanity, and then get paroled or released years down the road. None of the quasi-citizens wants him to have the opportunity to re-offend. The chant goes up for “kill him now”. It all sounds so familiar.
Luckily Lorre may have had the world’s greatest defense attorney because the final scene of the film is that of the bench in a real courtroom.
You’re left to wonder, did the offender get a “real” trial, did he go to prison, an insane asylum? Did he get paroled and remain offense-free or did he go on to commit another sexual crime? Did the crowd beat him to death and now they’re on trial?
We’re left not knowing.
Sex offenders were being tracked even back then. Sure, this offender had other problems, he was also a serial killer, with an “M” on his back, but it was a scarlet letter just the same. He was referred to as a sexual deviant, a fiend and a madman. He was seen as being in a whole different category than other criminals. Vigilantes wanted to take his punishment into their own hands. They wanted him dead because they were certain if paroled at some point, he would re-offend, certain there was no treatment, no cure for this kind of person. The possibility of rehabilitation is never considered.
Peter Lorre is helpless, even with his illness, he realizes that he has a problem, he feels the madness overtake him when he committs his offenses, but is powerless to stop himself. No excuse, but he was man with a sickness.
In the end, I can only hope that he got a real court trial. Whether it was fair or not, whether he was seen as a man in need of treatment or a rabid dog who couldn’t be cured, I guess we’ll never know.
But it’s kind of disturbing to see that in the 87 years since this film was produced, society’s views haven’t changed much when it comes to anything having to do with sex offenses and those that commit them. Society scoffs at the idea of rehabilitation or second chances. The scarlet letter is stil there. Registrants are still thought of as “sex offenders or deviants” by the public in general. Sex offenses are viewed in prison and jail settings as the lowest of low crimes. Vigilantism still exists. Family and friends still turn on or away from each other.
Think about it.
What are you doing to help change this?