Identifying (with) a Murderer: Six Steps Towards Sympathy
Ciara Wardlow, Wellesley College
Making video essays, I usually follow a certain methodology. I select a film, usually having a vague idea or perhaps several half-formed ones, and then do exhaustive amounts of research. I keep reading until I feel I have a good idea of what has been written thus far about the film in question—the major themes and arguments, the most influential writings, things of that nature—because only then do I know what has not been written yet. From there, I build my final argument and then start working on the actual making of the video. If there is one thing linking all my video essays, it is the desire to make an argument that is new; to truly challenge myself and my ability to analyze a film.
This video essay worked a little differently.
I first saw M (1931) when I was fourteen and just starting to explore the world of cinema outside of what Hollywood had to offer. To use modern vernacular, it totally blew my mind. Being fourteen, my views regarding matters of morality were still (relatively) black and white, meaning the development of serial child killer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) into a sympathetic character left me dumbfounded.
When I heard we would be screening it in a class, I knew right away that I would choose it for my final video essay.
Watching it for the second time in class gave me the benefit of seeing others’ reactions, which assured me that the stirrings of empathy I felt for Hans Beckert after his final monologue were not a fluke, or a potentially concerning indicator of my own mental state, but something truly remarkable about the film itself.
At that point I knew the character of Hans Beckert would be the subject of my video essay. I was certain that this marvel of character development worked, which left the question, how?
But before I could get to the research stage of my video essay, something interesting happened: we screened Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). Talking about Ozu’s use of elliptical narrative and de-dramatization and the more general idea of story and plot, I thought back to M, which we had watched just a week earlier, and realized that the plot and the story of M were starkly different. More importantly, they were starkly different in a way that might just help me unravel the mystery of Hans Beckert—a mystery that had eluded me for almost five years.
Once I finally got to investigating the literature on M, I was actually a little nervous. I felt it was nearly inevitable that I would come across my argument, already published by someone else.
But I didn’t. I read over 400 pages (the majority of which did not end up in my final video), and only found a handful of sources that even attempted to explain how Beckert could work as a sympathetic character—though, interestingly enough, almost every single thing I read did note how unnervingly sympathetic his character was.
As striking as the story/plot divide was, I felt that if I looked closer I could find more—and I did. In this video essay, I address some of the most iconic and well-studied aspects of M, such as the use of editing and visual parallels to equate the police force and the criminal underworld, and confuse the typical moral dichotomy created by those two parties, and use them to create a foundation for my own argument. Though I did not come across any existing scholarship that addressed the story/plot divide, I adapted several other arguments I found to further explain and explore Hans Beckert’s sympathetic tendencies.
When films manage something particularly extraordinary, like making a serial killer a sympathetic character, it seems like magic. Understanding how filmmaking works and the theory behind it removes that illusion. Maybe some would see that as disappointing. I think it only makes them more extraordinary.
Ciara Wardlow is a student at Wellesley College majoring in Cinema and Media Studies and Biology. Her numerous interests include science, cinema, and portrayals of science in cinema. She is the Arts Editor of The Wellesley News and the Technical Director of Wellesley College Television. She also writes for Film School Rejects. She can be found on Twitter @ciara_wardlow.