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  • Vishaal Desai

'M' & 'Se7en' - A Study in Comparison

‘M’ & ‘Se7en’ - A Study in Comparison

WARNING: Spoiler Alert!

Studying and comparing two films that are similar in tone and theme and yet vastly different in their narrative style and structure is both fascinating and challenging. Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ (1931) and David Fincher’s ‘Se7en’ (1995) are both compelling stories of a city and its lawmen, facing the machinations of an ostensibly psychotic killer. Both these films produce an ideologically similar crisis, where we as the audience question our own sense of justice and morality against the desire for bloodthirsty retribution.

In ‘M,’ we go from feeling pure hatred towards Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a serial killer preying on children, to discovering that he in fact suffers from a mental disability that plays a large part in influencing his behaviour as he quite literally cannot control his own actions. The final scene where Beckert is eventually captured and brought before a kangaroo court, held by the gangsters and criminals of the city, brings about a conflict in our own sensibilities.

Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert in ‘M’

Throughout the film, Lang paints Beckert as a cold-blooded murderer, a man undeserving of any sympathy whatsoever, thus manipulating our feelings towards this character. And despite being uncovered as someone with an obvious mental illness, my personal impression of the character did not change, to the point where I as a viewer became a part of the manhunt, gunning for the killer just like all the other blood-thirsty vengeance seekers. It is very interesting then that Lang chooses to show a part of the manhunt sequence through the eyes of Beckert, particularly when he is trapped in the office building. Trapped like a rat in a crevice, we are put in Beckert’s shoes for a brief moment as he experiences the horror of being caught.

As Beckert subsequently faces bald-faced retribution, ironically at the hands of criminals who, as he points out, unlike him, have committed crimes out of choice, we start to question our own judgement. Although his actions are undoubtedly inexcusable, is justice truly served by him being put to death by an angry mob, without a fair trial?

The so-called ‘jury’ of the kangaroo court clearly states what they believe would happen if Beckert were to be handed over to the police. He would go through the system, fall through the cracks and end up committing the same crimes over and over. Whether their point of view is justified or not is a matter of opinion but it speaks to a deep sense of mistrust towards the prevailing legal system. Their actions are ultimately driven by fear. They are afraid of him and what he could do, should he have the chance to roam the streets again and that fear manifests itself as anger, resulting in them seeking vengeance.

However, when Beckert's mental instability is brought to light, it raises another moral dilemma - to what degree can he be held responsible for his actions and what then is the punishment that must be meted out? When the kangaroo court scene puts us, the audience, in the shoes of the vengeful denizens, it throws the moral quandary right at us - how do we feel about this man and the punishment he should be dealt?

In the film ‘Se7en,’ Fincher takes a similar route to an end that brings about the same moral dilemma – is retribution justifiable, whatever the crime? In this film a serial killer methodically kills his victims in a series of ritualistic manners inspired by the seven deadly sins. For each of the seven sins, an “appropriate” victim is chosen – a lawyer for GREED, an obese man for GLUTTONY, a mentally disturbed paedophile for SLOTH, a prostitute for LUST and a model for PRIDE. Eventually the killer completes his ‘art’ as he calls it by accounting for all seven sins. ENVY - which he commits himself by coveting the wife of Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) and to satisfy that envy he kills Mills’ wife. When the killer finally reveals himself to Mills and informs him of his wife’s murder, he forces Mills to commit the final sin i.e. RAGE. With this knowledge, Mills is put in a similar position (and we as the audience along with him) where he is torn between taking the higher ground, bringing the killer to justice and seeking vengeance and satisfaction for the death of his wife by committing an act that would essentially validate the killer's twisted point of view. Ultimately he gives in to his rage and murders his wife's killer.

In this scene, Mills' rage is mirrored by us, the audience. Being sympathetic towards him and his loss, we channel that same rage towards the killer. It is true that in this instance, Mills' anger is a result of deliberate manipulation, where the killer knowingly commits acts that would put himself in a situation to face Mills' retribution. But the choice to exact retribution is made by him alone. The line between justice and vengeance can be easily crossed when the aggrieved parties are the ones passing judgement.

The Climax from ‘Seven’ where Miller (Pitt) seeks vengeance against John Doe (Spacey)

Joseph Campbell once spoke of the story of a Samurai warrior who seeks to avenge the murder of his overlord. When he finally catches the culprit, the man spits in his face. The Samurai straight away sheaths his sword and walks away. The insult of the spit in the face had angered him and if he had killed the man then, it would not have been for the reason that he had originally intended.

While the similarities in the underlying theme of these two films are apparent, it's the veiled similarities between the two central characters that I found the most fascinating. In a fair trial, Beckert's mental instability would be taken into considering when passing judgement on him for his crimes. If Mills were to be charged with murdering the serial killer, should his mental state be also be taken into account, given that he was compromised by grief?

In a way, I found the climax of both films to be comments on society and human beings in general. When it comes right down to it, we are not as rational as we would like to think. According to the killer in ‘Se7en’, each of his victims are deserving of their fate and as such he believes his crimes are justifiable, which brings me back to the question that was asked in ‘M’ – do we as individuals or even a group have the right to deal out judgement and punishment? On the face of it, this question has a very easy answer. But reality is far more complex because such is the nature of humanity.


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