Sympathy for the Criminal

In the history of popular representations of crime, there has arisen a necessity for creators to invest into the personality of the criminal. Of course, it would be difficult to argue otherwise since the depiction of crime necessitates criminals being the central figure of the narrative. The continuing sensationalist appeal of crime owes much to the fact that the genre provides much of the groundwork that allows for compelling drama, namely the existence of a protagonist for whom seemingly abnormal situations are rendered normal.

The simplest example of this is the 1998 German picture, Lola Rennt or Run Lola Run, in which a fiery-maned Franka Potente (under the direction of Tom Tykwer) plays the eponymous character’s attempts to obtain 100,000 Deutsche marks in 20 minutes to save her boyfriend, a small-time crook of low gang ranking played by Moritz Bleibtreu. Although Lola and her boyfriend are essentially engaged in questionable behavior, their circumstances are not depicted as entirely the product of malevolent personalities or felonious dispositions, but rather as incidental aspects of their fundamentally sympathetic characters.

For example, it is implied that Lola maintains an estranged relationship with her parents as exemplified by her father, a cold and indifferent banker. Her father reveals to her that not only is he not her real father, but that he is leaving her mother for a mistress – who, in one the film’s three sequential alternate realities, is revealed to be pregnant by another lover. Lola was never his daughter, but rather a young female who happened to be within the domain of his fleeting relationships with women.

As such, the Lola’s only source of emotional stability is her relationship with Manni (and the same goes for Manni, who depends on Lola not just emotionally but literally within the film’s core narrative as well). However, underneath the skin of this relationship is a fear of potential uncertainty as signified by the red-tinted flashback sequences of Lola and Manni in bed. As such, the multiple attempts to save Manni from peril are fast-paced quests to preserve Lola’s only meaningful relationship and that it entails criminal action on both ends merely emphasizes this importance.

In other cases, the criminal is depicted as engaging in criminal actions that exist apart from other fundamental aspects of his lifestyle. Such a portrayal attempts to show that the criminal behavior has significantly less bearing on the criminal’s personality – that it does not reflect his core character. William Wellman’s 1931 drama Public Enemy deals with this explicitly by presenting us two protagonists who share a common attraction towards the corruption of 1920s urban America, but grow up into it into rather contrasting ways.

Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) get drawn into Prohibition-era bootlegging and subsequently grow from mere delinquents into young adults unabashedly embracing the trappings of criminal culture. However, what differentiates Tom from Matt is that the former merely wears his gangster aesthetic as a reflection of his lifestyle and not his internal character. Despite his felonious affluence, Tom remembers his humble origins and provides material and emotional support to his widowed mother, who despite being enfeebled in her age, pathetically dotes over him.