Thursday, November 19, 2009

Crime hysteria

Monday night I saw another offering in the European Union Film Showcase at AFI, a Danish film called Deliver Us From Evil. While some of the techniques used were questionable, like the portentous music and images of gathering storm clouds between scenes, and the odd presence of a strangely dressed narrator at the beginning and end, it told a strong story of how people can lose their heads in the quest for vengeance. Lars, a shiftless truck driver with a far more successful brother, runs someone over while on the job, hides the body and other evidence, and plants more evidence on a Bosnian immigrant, who is later besieged by the dead woman's husband, who is also Lars' boss, and other employees who get caught up in the exciting prospect of violence against a supposedly violent offender, although all evidence, and the scene itself, indicate that the woman's death was an accident. While the film is at times a bit too ambitious in attempting to explore multiple issues of class and race (and a rape scene with ensuing battle at the end that is totally superfluous), the illustration of how crazy people can become in pursuing justice is a powerful one. In the climax, the husband, with his employees, has tracked the Bosnian, Alain, to the home of Lars' far more successful brother Johannes, a friend of Alain's who has decided to protect him from the mob. But, as Johannes' wife notices, he becomes just as zealous and violent in his struggle as the mob outside, using a nail gun to staple the arm of an intruder to the door. Johannes himself says that he wants to show up the "proletariats" outside. Ingvar (may not be the exact name), the grieving widower, has an assistant who ultimately refuses to get the bullets for Ingvar to reload his shotgun after shooting into Johannes' house, a doctor Johannes had brought in to examine Alain and police responding to a call. At this point, Lars, shocked at the extremes to which Ingvar has gone, has confessed to running over Ingvar's wife, and Ingvar is unable to harm him. The scene of the angry mob searching ostensibly for justice but in reality to serve a base desire to harm a perceived enemy, recalls Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, where a retarded man wrongly accused of rape is chased and, though I don't remember exactly, is either killed or almost killed, and Fritz Lang's Fury, where an accused criminal (also innocent) is murdered by a mob that has surrounded the jail where he is being held.
This doesn't just happen in the movies. In a book I just read about Italy's still unsolved case of serial murder, the Monster of Florence killings, after a composite sketch is released of the suspected killer (seen by witnesses near the crime scenes), anyone who vaguely resembled the sketch was terrorized by angry citizens, their businesses suffered, and one man committed suicide as a result of the barrage of threats he received. This was hardly the only problem encountered in the Monster of Florence case; the litany of power struggles among officials, the refusals of investigators to admit fault in accusing ultimately innocent men of the crime, and the terror they inflicted on a journalist who dared to question the official path of the investigation, all of which led to the killer remaining free and unknown (though the terrorized journalist has a convincing theory as to the killer's identity) to this day, warrants its own post, which I will write at another time. I mention it here as an example of the kind of hysteria that can grip a community that has seen a crime wave or suffered any significant loss; they want to blame someone, and when their anxieties finally have a human face, they set upon that, whether or not an official investigation has been conducted and whether or not that person is guilty, and their fear and rage often turn violent. Common sense, logic and everything that separates humans from other animals, except a disturbing organization of brutality, disappears.

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