Life Imitates Art Imitating Life

Earlier this week, Alejandro Avila made the first of several court appearances to answer the government's charge that he abducted, raped and brutally murdered 5-year-old Samantha Runnion of Stanton.

Aside from the heinous nature of the crime, one of the reasons the Runnion case evoked such fear in the public was the media's readiness to link it to similar recent events. But this is not new. The modern media has used the archetype and motifs of the predatory, elusive killer to sell abduction stories since the Lindbergh baby.

Fritz Lang's 1931 classic M did it best. Starring the creepy Peter Lorre (who plays child murderer Hans Beckert), the film still shocks more than 70 years later—not just because of its similarities to reality (Lang based Beckert on 1920s mass murderer Peter Kürten, “the Monster of Dusseldorf”) but also because it's a supreme example of life imitating art. Its depiction of murders and a murderer became the prototype for handling abduction cases in our Court TV world.

M's parallels with the Runnion case are eerie. Avila lured Runnion away with promises of a puppy; Beckert used toys and candies. Beckert so terrifies Berlin that virtually the entire city helps in capturing the monster, much as Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona's exhaustive countywide effort depended upon neighbors, cops and the media. The film's climax—when Beckert pleads for pity—gives us a preview of how Avila's trial may turn out.

But Lang's treatment of the killings and its perpetrator is the most frightening parallel. The film never shows an actual murder, instead offering suggestive scenes. In one, Beckert buys a young girl a balloon; in the next scene, the balloon is caught in telephone wires—intercut with shots of the girl's increasingly anxious mother. To this day, television alternates between pictures or videotapes of the abducted and family press conferences as a jolting reminder of the suspense that builds between what has happened and remains unresolved.

M reminds us that those who commit crimes—no matter how monstrous—are still human beings. That's a point that may be forgotten today. Lang also seems to question society's innocence, underscoring that point in brutal fashion: when he is tried near the film's end, Beckert faces a jury composed of Berlin's criminal class. More interestingly, Lang partly blames Beckert's murders on society itself, opening and closing M with shots of working-class children playing unsupervised in the streets because their parents are too busy working to take care of them. Runnion lived in a working-class Stanton apartment complex.

Many hard questions about Avila and society will be asked in the coming media circus. Lang, who died in 1976, would hesitate to answer them. “I have tried to approach the murderer imaginatively,” he once wrote of Beckert, “to show him as a human being possessed of some demon that has driven him beyond the ordinary borderlines of human behavior, not the least part of whose tragedy is that by murder he never resolves his conflicts.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *