From the perspective of cinematic ethics and morality, Fritz Lang’s M (1931) presents a perplexing and confronting site of analysis for sympathy towards the character Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a child murderer. Professor of Film Studies Murray Smith suggests the ‘structure of sympathy’ is more complicated than the traditional model of character identification provides.
Murray Smith’s Model of Sympathy
1. Recognition: simply the spectator’s acknowledgement of a particular character
- acknowledgement the character Hans Beckert is a child murderer
2. Alignment: the (objective) perspective presented to the spectator by the camera
- in the scene, we see both Beckert’s own subjective perspective (the camera looks out to the crowd during his plea) and an objective perspective (medium-close up shots of Beckert pleading to the vigilante crowd and their reactions)
3. Allegiance: the (subjective) position of the spectator’s moral approval of the character’s actions; the spectator weighs up pros and cons of the character’s moral traits
- most would agree what Beckert has done is reprehensible, but the scene does not present him as cold and antagonistic, on the contrary the emotional close-ups of his desperate pleading suggest his psychological agony in the acknowledgement of his sickness, and goes some way to form a sympathetic spectator allegiance to a morally dubious character
M presents an unusual moral dilemma. The film guides the spectator’s sympathies towards a morally detestable character. The spectator recognises Beckert as a child murder, then the camera presents both Beckert’s subjective perspective (he looks out to the crowd) and an objective perspective (we view Beckert’s emotional reactions) in combination with the spectator’s moral standing to form a complicated site of ethical allegiance. Does Beckert’s sickness make us sympathise with him? Are we unequivocally unsympathetic? Do we sit somewhere in between?
Murray Smith’s model presents a more intricate analysis of sympathy that combines character recognition, filmic alignment, and moral allegiances. It demonstrates ways filmmakers can guide our sympathies and emotional reactions to even the most evil, immoral characters.
Carl Plantinga 2010, ‘“I Followed the Rules, and They All Loved You More”: Moral Judgment and Attitudes toward Fictional Characters in Film’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 34, pp. 34-51.
Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Cinematic Ethics’, Lectures 11, 11a to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.