The Sympathetic Killer

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Vile Ted Bundy is what I think is the title of the Netflix movie everyone is talking about at the time of writing this. I’ve heard mixed responses on the film mostly pertaining to how the film has chosen to portray Ted Bundy through the perspective of Elizabeth Kloepfer. I’ve understood that some peoples’ problem is that by casting the “dreamy” Zac Efron to portray an unhinged monster among men leaving some wondering if this perspective of Bundy detached from his grizzly acts has conveyed him attractive rather than horrifying.

I’m not opposed to the idea of Zac Efron playing Ted Bundy as it might be an interesting perspective to explore the character as someone who not only fits within society but someone who has a magnetism that enables him to commit such wicked deeds. The most frightening monsters aren’t the ones who are relegated to hiding under beds or within closets but the ones who roam freely among us right? However, this film exhibits how a character-centric plot line can humanize a killer and maybe indirectly create an image of a sympathetic killer. However, I don’t have a crush on Zac Efron… or Ted Bundy so I haven’t seen the film yet. Instead, I will be using it as a relevant springboard to talk about an older film that isn’t but could be a nice companion piece for those interested in portraying serial killers in media. What if we were to un-focus the narrative, be a more plot driven affair focused on the fiasco and hysteria behind a search for the killer that questions if there is any place for a sympathetic killer? Enter…

M

M is a 1931 German film from Fritz Lang (Metropolis) starring Peter Lorre (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon). M demonstrates the way in which a serial child murderer, Franz Becker has an adverse effect on the German town that descents into paranoia, fear, and madness. M is truly a film ahead of it’s time, it’s a film that perfectly demonstrates the ill effects of Nazi persecution and McCarthyism while predating both. While I’d say that some elements lack modern subtlety and the 2nd act stalls in places the thematic take on the subject matter is rather perplexing and nuanced. M is not about a series of killings or even it’s killer but rather using it as a voyeuristic springboard into the effects such crime has the on community as a whole. The remainder of the discussion will be dissecting specific plot elements so if you plan to be well-versed in this film than I’d encourage you to go ahead and watch it before carrying on, however feel free to forge on to how this masterpiece treats its murderer as a subject of conversation.

From worrisome mothers, to restless police, to paranoid citizens does M capture the chaos that can be sprung in the hunt for a boogeyman. M to me comes across as Dr. Strangelove played straight, that the intention is to display what kind of environment the focal event has fostered. From early on we see from the feud caused by a man who gives a little girl directions the forming of mob mentality. Almost as frightening as our sick in the head, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” whistling serial killer, is a mass of people motivated by fear and a thirst for justice. Our killers’ actions have affected the entire town that now has their actions placed under higher scrutiny, are under surveillance, and are seen needing proper paperwork or will be placed under investigation. M illustrates just how one bad seed can soil the bunch as his influence is felt on everyone and nobody is too pleased with it.

What is compelling about M is that essentially it is a critique on the court of public opinion. The concluding events of the film carry a weight of irony to them; how our murderer is only caught by the “blind” man who both has evidence and acts as a witness against him. It’s also ironic how the “jury” is composed all of criminals. The film ends with the mob of criminals putting the feeble killer on trial to decide what course of action is best suited. The killer pleas his case which is that his crimes are part of his sadistic human nature that he can’t help his urge to commit heinous acts. It introduces a debate that is also at the center of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and that is to what lengths should we go to punish, rehabilitate, or alter non-conforming individuals. What are we to do with the most vile of men among us; is our purpose to understand the humanity of the individual and strive to enact upon mental rehabilitation and exercises what is best for their needs, or is the verdict more for our own satisfaction to fulfill our own desires for retribution and a fitting sense of justice. I earnestly believe that M does not portray a sympathetic killer, that interpretation only persists because it is a conclusion drawn from the film’s intent to ultimately vilify the mob. Again, there’s a reason why Hans Becker has committed one of the most offensive offenses of child murder and the fact he is judged by a room full of criminals is to get the audience to consider this, where do we draw the line?

Whose crime also would be fitting to be on the receiving end of such ostracization and malicious intent? Hans’ monologue on how everyone in the room suffers from some form of sin or bad behavior goes:

“What right have you to speak? Criminals! Perhaps you are even proud of yourselves! Proud of being able to crack into safes, or climb into buildings or cheat at cards All of which, it seems to me, you could just as easily give up… I cannot help myself! I have no control over this evil thing that is inside me – the fire, the voices, the torment!”

The film is sympathetic towards Becker not because his actions deserve it, but he is a scapegoat. So, the film fades to black putting the emphasis on “all of you” and so it goes to you… who deserves to put on trial? Predators, deviants, abusers, racists, criminals, offensive characters, ideologically askew individuals… who among us deserves the wrath of the mob and a verdict from the court of public opinion? No matter what our efforts are, the truth is put bluntly by one of the film’s grieving mothers “No sentence will bring the dead children back”. No campaign for justice will rectify the past grievances or atrocities. What has happened has happened and nothing can ever change that.

Life goes on, usually with pitchfork in hand; unsure if that’s to retaliate against evil to ward off or to protect our own safety from being the next victim of a Scarlet letter.

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