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NITA Movie Review: “A Scourge That Is Always With Us”

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

mRay Rice.  Adrian Peterson. The issues of domestic violence and child abuse are at the forefront of the news once again, jumping into our consciousness because of high-profile cases involving NFL players. But violence like this is hardly a new phenomenon.  For this month’s film I’ve chosen a film from 1931, in black and white, in a foreign language, that is one of the most powerful cinematic statements – if not THE most powerful cinematic statement – about the horrors of child abduction and sexual assault on children.  It will chill you to the bone.

M is a German film released in 1931.  It was directed by Fritz Lang, one of the all-time great directors.[1] It was Lang’s first sound film.  Lang also wrote the script with his wife, Thea Von Harbou.  Of all his many movies, M was Lang’s favorite. He stated years later that the story came to him because Germany was plagued by a number of serial killers.  However, the subject matter of the movie was not one that the public was happy about.  When Lang announced that he would make a movie about this subject, he received death threats and his regular studio refused to allow the film to be made there.  Lang would eventually come to the United States after Hitler came to power and would make a number of remarkable films after moving here.

M tells the story of a mentally ill man who abducts, sexually assaults and kills children. We see the pursuit of the killer on two fronts.  There is the frantic search by the police authorities, led by Inspector Karl Lohmann. That search leads to a crackdown on the city’s criminal class and that crackdown in turn leads the criminal underground to begin its own parallel search, at the direction of a character known as The Safecracker. The criminals find the killer first and put him on trial before a kangaroo court made up of the criminal underground.  I won’t spoil the ending – but it will move you.

The killer is played by Peter Lorre in his first starring role.  If you only know Lorre from his slightly silly performances in low-budget horror films of the ‘60’s, his acting here will be a revelation.  The anguish of a crazed and obsessed killer is palpable. Watching him during the trial, one can almost feel sorry for him.  Almost.

M is filled with images that will disturb and even shock you – but given the time of its making, we see nothing explicit or even very direct. Rather than battering us with the kind of graphic images easily available to us today on the internet and television, Lang instead conveys fear, terror, obsession and loathing by carefully crafted images that leave everything to our imaginations. The power of Lang’s visual language is such that I have seen people weep or cry out in shock or fear while watching M.

Yes, this movie is 83 years old.  Yes, it’s in black and white.  Yes, it’s in German with subtitles. None of that matters. Watching it will be powerful and unforgettable experience for you. M reminds us that violence against our fellow beings is a scourge that is always with us and is, sadly, nothing new. Every one of us in the legal system sees this every day, no matter where we are: sex assaults on children in criminal, sexual harassment suits in civil, protection orders in domestic, D&N’s in juvenile, abuse of the elderly in probate. The maltreatment of human beings by other human beings is a constant thread in our work. But our knowledge of that sad, frightening thread should remind us that we, as a society can do better.

And we must do better.


[1] Among other movies, Lang also directed Metropolis, a silent film about a future society and its relationship to robots, found on every list of movie classics and a must for all sci-fi fans.

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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system. NITA's Goals are to:
  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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