Rightly considered the ultimate serial killer film, as well as one of the best police procedurals of all time, Fritz Lang’s M is perhaps the greatest thriller ever constructed. But neither genre designation goes much way towards actually appreciating what Lang has constructed. While his famously acerbic world view was already firmly in place, M goes further than any other film of the period (or any period, for that matter) to create an atmosphere of dread, fear, paranoia and, by film’s end, a kind of existential terror at not only the unknowability of evil, but the banality of it as well.
It’s a common misconception of silent films that assumes a certain kind of static and stage-like imagery, and that the sound film introduced a fluid and mobile camera. This fallacy has finally been redressed, thanks largely in part to the release of a number of silents on dvd. In fact, the end of the silent era saw a complete mastery of camera movement and visual expression, while the birth of the sound film introduced a whole slew of technical and aesthetic problems, resulting in largely (yes) static camera set ups and infrequent camera movement (see the relatively recent special edition of The Jazz Singer for a truly banal movie going experience – a historical marker, to be sure, and not much else). Lang would side step both problems with his first sound film, and M is both a stunning example of Bresson’s sound dictums (certainly, Lang would have influenced him) as well as a breathtaking use of visual trickery to accomplish what we would now call tracking (dolly) shots, or long takes that would nowadays be rendered with a steadicam. Lang would eschew much of the opulence and pageantry with which he had made his name in the Silent Era, but it would be incorrect to assume that M represents any kind of “dry realism”. There are bold stylistic choices on display in the film, but most are in service of a dark, depressing, and contemporary story – in other words, no elaborate castle sets, papier-mâché dragons, studio constructed forests, flying cars or rocket ships, etc. It’s a modestly scaled stylization, tempered more towards brooding than opulence.
The most innovative feature of M is Lang’s devotion to sound design. There is a constant use of sound queues preceding the introduction of an event or person. Indeed, the beginning of the film is aural, as opposed to visual - we hear children’s voices over a black screen, the actual image of children singing and playing appearing a few beats afterwards. They are singing one of those grotesque songs about death that they can neither fully understand nor appreciate – one of Lang’s dark ironies. As mothers complain about the “awful song”, one mentions that “as long as we can hear them (the children), we know that they are safe”. Offscreen, a cuckoo clock begins ringing, a sound that segues into school bells clanging as children leave class for the day. We are then introduced to the killer in a series of visual and aural gestures – we hear a whistling (the killer’s, as it happens, in a recurring aural motif that signifies his arrival at any given scene and that will ultimately provide the means for his capture) as the camera settles on a public notice warning about the murders. A profile appears, imposed over the posting, and the voice speaks. It’s a fascinating choice, creepily effective, and suggesting, at this point, that not only can we not bear to look at such a monster, but that such a person can only exist in shadows (of course, the end of the film will suggest the exact opposite, the murderer-as-helpless man child - another of Lang’s ironies. It certainly helps that Peter Lorre’s puffy, soft cheeks and big round eyes create the sensation of observing an over-sized ten year who thinks he’s just pulling the wings off of flies.).
The first murder scene, much like the killer’s introduction to the film, is designed and executed entirely through visual suggestion. Lorre walks around town with a little girl who is bouncing a ball. They stop, and he purchases her a novelty balloon from a blind man. We cut back to one of the mothers from the film’s beginning, who can no longer “hear her child playing” (the inversion here is important – the lack of a sound queue alerts the audience to an absence). As she frantically calls her daughter’s name and asks neighbors if they have seen her come home from school, Lang cuts to brief shots of an empty attic, stairwell, a dinner plate, and then finally, to a shot of the girl’s ball rolling away and the balloon ensnared in power lines. The novelty balloon, which has the shape of a small, cartoonish person, is, visually and symbolically, being strangled by the horizontal power lines. Much of the scene’s effectiveness stems not only from the geometric design of these relatively empty spaces, spaces that the girl should be occupying, or the symbolic extensions of the child rolling or drifting away into nothingness, but also from the sound design – or, in this case, the lack thereof. Up to this point, we’ve been virtually bombarded with noises of all kind, and these two brief sequence shots match their visual void with an aural one - this aural void representing the silencing, as it where, of the victim.
After the revelation of the murder, Lang begins the next scene with a close up of a posting about the missing girl – a man’s voice reads the text aloud as the camera slowly moves back to reveal, gradually, a huge crowd of people gathered about. Their loud murmuring, which grows louder as the camera reveals more of them, carries over into the next scene of men gathered around a table, arguing with each other as to the identity of the killer. As fear and anxiety grows throughout the community, ordinary citizens begin to accuse each other. Meanwhile, in an increasingly desperate manhunt, the police force begins cracking down on ordinary criminals. As the plot thickens, we begin to see how Lang’s techniques inform the basic plot: more than a simple technical device, Lang’s use of sound produces (at least) two distinct effects 1. as with the first murder scene, the preceding of an event with a sound that introduces it creates a sense of predetermination, not unlike the viewer being drawn towards some kind of inevitability. It’s a kind of cosmic dread which Lang will use consistently through his career, and it permeates an increasingly fearful populace, fueling their hysteria. 2. The use of elaborate sound bridges to link the criminal and the public official into an intertwined co-existence. These sound bridges, coupled with Lang’s use of parallel editing, are incredibly important in suturing the two disparate sectors of societal power into one entity – criminals and cops become one, for all intents and purposes. The point is not to contrast the two groups, nor even to suggest, banally, that the public officials are just as bad as the criminals (or vice versa, that the criminals are actually good at heart). In Lang’s universe, their groups are exactly the same, functioning with, roughly speaking, the same moral and financial systems. Lang will cross cut between the two groups discussing what exactly to do about the monster: the criminals are upset that their business is being disrupted by an increasingly frustrated police force, while the police force is angered at the public’s complete inability to assist them – no one can remember details correctly, different people give conflicting accounts of various events, people give them idiotic false leads by accusing each other. Lang positions both groups as powerful entities that operate beyond society - In other words, they each have a complimentary agenda that is only minimally concerned with the “good of the public”.
In the film’s final moments, with things presumably “returning to normal”, Lang leaves us with the bitter notion that a normal, functioning society inherently breeds criminals; he also makes us wallow in the aftermath of our judgment upon them. In the wake of staggering economic depression and the rising power of the Nazi party, Lang’s fixation on murder, mob rule and powerful criminals seems particularly incendiary (the Nazis would ban the film in ’34). It’s a popularly held notion, post- Kracauer, that Lang’s Mabuse films presaged, if not outright predicted, the rise of Hitler. J. Hoberman writes: “Mabuse was employed to epitomize the postwar period of political instability, social turmoil, and crazed hyperinflation. In the person of Mabuse, Lang gave