I took this class, Film 132a: International Film 1930 - 1960, taught by Prof. Gloria Monti in the Winter of 2002. I liked the professor but then I think it is my fate to like every professor who is not on the permanent film faculty here at UCSC. I wrote this paper the night before it was due and since it was the last of three 10 page final papers that I had written that week I think that it is the poorest in quality though I still enjoy it since I love the movie M so much. Had I been living in Hollywood in the 30's and 40's I would have been a Peter Lorre groupie. Be that as it may I must have done well on this paper since I only received a C on the outline but an A in the class.

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The Murderer is Among Us: Fritz Lang's M, A Historical Masterpiece of Style and Meeting

    The film M is symptomatic of the tense environment of prewar (and postwar) Germany. Since the end of the first world war, German nationalism had been vehemently suppressed by the rest of the world and then, in the early 1930’s, the Nazi party' was beginning its ascent to power. M eerily predicts the lynch mob mentality of Adolf Hitler’s agenda of genocide. The film enjoys a distinctive place in the history of cinema and particularly the history of German cinema. M came after what is formally recognized as the end of the German Expressionism movement and prior to the point at which German national cinema became centered around the propaganda films of the Nazi party. In M Fritz Lang passes judgment on peoples in many levels of society: he denounces parents (particularly mothers) as careless, the courts as inadequate, citizens as bloodthirsty, and criminals as ultimately self-righteous hypocrites. In this film, Fritz Lang critiques social justice and mob mentality by questioning attitudes toward mental illness and juxtaposing the processes and practices of the police with those of underworld criminals. Fritz Lang achieves this through his provocative style of contrasting sound with silence and the film’s audio track with whatever visual accompaniment was present. Lang’s exploration of various manifestations of duality (within the social justice system, within an individual, etc.) adds to the lasting effects and legacy of these profound contrasts. At a time when other filmmakers were more concerned with simply integrating the new technology of sound, Fritz Lang was incorporating it into his films to construct meaning and art. A great many of the pioneers of early sound films felt that they were obligated to use sound as much as they possibly could in their films (Ebert). Fritz Lang felt and honored no such obligation. Thus his films were not dictated to by the need for sound in each scene and each shot. Some of the most powerful and important scenes and shots in the film M contain absolutely no sound and that silence is more effective to the agenda of the film and Lang’s message than any amount of dialogue or sound track.

    The cinema of the German Weimar Republic enjoyed a unique historical positionality. These films came in the aftermath of the first world war, and in the wake of the second. M itself comes in the valley following the mountain of the German Expressionist movement and is one of the first German sound films (certainly Fritz Lang’s first sound film). Although the end of the first world war left Germany in political disgrace, the country did enjoy a certain amount of what Kracauer refers to as “freedom of choice” or a freedom to develop its culture independent of dire political obligations (48). While immediately following the war the most common films in Germany were sex films and historical films, the most relevant result of this newfound freedom in terms of German film was the German Expressionism movement, its origins credited to the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, produced in 1920. During this time, expressionism was “frequently considered a shaping of primitive sensations and experiences” (Kracauer 70). Yet even in these years of relative artistic freedom, the reign of authority was present and had to be answered to. The creators of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for instance, were forced to amend the film in such a way that authority figures were not implicated as possibly being insane and thus incompetent. These films had a way of opposing tyranny with chaos and implying that one must inevitably be chosen. This theme dominated German films of the 1920’s and was generally associated with the German Expressionist movement of cinema and was particularly present in such films as Nosferatu, Vanina, Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, and Waxworks. At the same time other German films were emerging which followed themes that attempted to offer some alternate solution to the problem of choosing between indistinct government chaos and totalitarianism. As the expressionist years (and the 1920’s) wore on, German film began to descend into almost pure, mindless escapism. The financial state of the country was just about at its nadir and Germany was forced to accept help from the political forces which had destabilized its postwar economy to begin with. Upon coming out of the slump somewhat, German cinema floundered in many different directions, leaving the business open to change, which is exactly what it got. The first few years of the 1930’s were very important and very special indeed, particularly for German cinema. The films of this period were created in a time of limbo and often highlight the contrast between the world of Germany before the first world war, after the first world war, and in preparation and anticipation of the second world war. Paul M. Jensen, for example, claims that M embodies a symbolic manifestation of the opposition between “the Weimar Republic and the Nazi Third Reich” (287). Not too many years after M was released in Germany, Fritz Lang was approached by the Nazi party with an offer to create propaganda films for them. This offer prompted Lang to leave the country and seek employment elsewhere (namely, England and America), but he had already left his mark indisputably on the historical time line of German cinema. After Fritz Lang left and the Third Reich was established, German cinema was dominated by Nazi propaganda films and primarily the work of infamous filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Olympia, Triumph of the Will, among others) and the continued work of Fritz Lang’s ex-wife (they divorced not long after his defection from Germany). German film following World War II was of course drastically changed from (though still an evolutionary step from) all the films which preceded it. The political and social climate that was present during the last years of the Weimar Republic was very distinct and very important. Often that time period is forgotten and all cinema occurring between The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the beginning of the Nazi propaganda period is forgotten. But the years which preceded Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror and which followed the tumultuous decade of the 1920’s were clearly singular in the space they provided to filmmakers such as Fritz Lang. In any other period in the history of German film, a filmmaker such as Fritz Lang might never have risen to public attention and his important and definitive works, such as the film M, might never have gotten made or at least not as they eventually were.

    At this particular moment in history it is worth noting that Fritz Lang used his film M as a means by which to embody a set of values and statements about the state of German society. This end is achieved through the narrative of the film in the form of juxtapositions, contrasts, and parallels which are drawn between and among different characters and groups. The film, throughout its run, pleads the case of the murderer (the only character who can arguably be referred to as the protagonist if the film does indeed have one as the film tends to focus on the police procedures and the hunt for the killer rather than on the killer himself) and therefore of the mentally ill by showing him treated as a criminal and a disease and not as a sick man who cannot help himself. Fritz Lang establishes audience sympathy for the murderer in several ways. First, the casting of Peter Lorre as the killer debunks the long standing assumption that a criminal must be dangerous in appearance. As the murderer, Peter Lorre is anything but threatening with his portly figure and deceptively innocent round face. Further, he is shown as a victim of his own illicit desires and twisted sexuality who not only wishes to be caught and prevented from further criminal actions but actively attempts an end to his reign of terror (through capture, not through true surrender) by writing a letter to the newspapers. The character is shot is such a way as to suggest that he is a primitive creature, answering to natural instincts. For example, Kracauer points to three occasions in the film when surrounding objects or elements of mise-en-scene threaten to engulf the murderer: the knives in a cutlery shop window, the foliage of a hedge, and the contents of the crowded attic where he hides from the criminals who pursue him (300). So Fritz Lang displays duality here as homicidal schizophrenia, with an innocent, unassuming facade concealing a despised murderer. As the film progresses, the line between justice and revenge (that is, precedented confinement of the criminal and outright murder in retaliation) is blurred and mob violence is associated with both institutions. The film is concerned with two denominations of murder and of murderers. The first is that committed by Hanz Becker (Peter Lorre, commonly credited incorrectly as Franz Becker), as the pivotal and (essentially) title character is not associated with the criminal underworld because he operates independently of them and his crimes are compulsive acts of passion. Because these autonomous acts of dissent cannot be rooted out by the police, the criminal contingent are hard pressed by the law enforcers. They therefore add to the police force’s efforts in hunting down the criminal and do manage to capture him before the police can do so. While they initially appear to be trying him in an organized (albeit unlawful) and orderly fashion, they eventually spiral downward into “the emotional impulsiveness of a mob” (Jensen 287). The same impulsiveness surfaces in other moments in the film, such as when a man gives a passing a child the time of day and is accused of being the murderer. The accusation is enough to rile the crowds on the street into attacking the poor man without stopping first to consider the possibility of his innocence (both the criminal contingent as well as the police complain about the apathetic public which is not truly depicted at any point in the film, Lang chose to concentrate on the search for the killer rather than on those who were ultimately disinterested). Disorganization and order are depicted in M primarily through the juxtaposition and intercutting of the deductive methods and meetings of the underworld and the police force. During a scene of the criminals planning how best to deal with the problem presented by the existence of this killer and the law’s failure to capture him, moments from the meeting of the policemen discussing similar problems of new methods by which to possibly trap the killer are shown. The scenes are edited together in such a way as to suggest quite clearly the similarity between the two organizations. The underworld criminals are represented as impossibly organized and resourceful, actively enlisting the aid of the city’s beggars and making progress in identifying and hounding out the murderer almost immediately. The policemen, in contrast, depend primarily on chance and good fortune for their leads in the case (exemplified in the inordinate amount of time which it takes them to follow up on enough leads in order to eventually discover the identity of the murderer). Fritz Lang does not, however, imply in M that the organized justice of the police is inferior to that of the perfidious order of the criminals: just the opposite is, in fact, the case. In M the mob of criminals, while organized for a time in the pursuit of the errant criminal, ultimately reverts to its original mob state while the justice of the police force is patient and ultimately displayed as correct in light of the incorrect ‘justice’ of the “kangaroo court” (Kracauer 219). Ultimately, though, the film is constructed to show the world of the film as it exists for Becker, the killer: as a frightening, terrifying place where the greatest threat travels with him everywhere he goes and is, in fact, himself. The “underworld of his own mind” is constantly seeking to destroy him and therefore to meet a physical and real manifestation of this other self in the form of the criminal justice court is terrifying to Becker and thus to the audience (Jensen 290). The ultimate contrast explored by Fritz Lang in this film boils down to the struggle by logic and reason to contain and retain control over emotional desires. In the person of the mentally ill killer, the individual (in this case, Hans Becker), moments of temptation cause the control to weaken and emotional desires run rampant, longing to be filled. He (Becker) is, as Jensen claims, “his own worst enemy” (290). Becker is caught, not only between the two outside forces of the criminal underworld and the policemen, but within the maze of his own mental illness. Lang’s solution to Becker’s dilemma is indeed to deliver the sick man unto the institution and allow him to be treated rather than killed in an attempt at retribution for the harm he has caused to others. In the end, Becker, though a villain of sorts, is well established as sympathetic in his illness while the forces which vie to capture him are, in turn, shown as organized (for a short time as in the case of the underworld) and disorganized (the police in their lack of resources and manpower to scour the streets as effectively as the underworld is able to do through the enlisting of the beggars’ union). The exploration (and suggested plan for the healing) of these dualities and nuances of similarity and difference across organizational lines are key to the enduring quality of this film.

    M, as an early sound film, is groundbreaking in many ways and could not have been fully realized had it not been made with sound. Fritz Lang contrasts the sound within the film with the images which are presented concurrently as well as using silence just as effectively. According to Eisner, in this brilliant and effective use of sound, M (along with films such as Madchen in Uniform and The Blue Angel) was the exception rather than the rule in the context of early German sound film (309). Many of the most intense and eerie scenes in the film are completely, or almost completely silent. When Becker is thrown before the masses of citizens and denizens of the underworld, he faces a silent wall of hard human faces and stiff bodies which make no sound but silently judge him. They are silent at first in any case. Slowly the crowd begins to escalate in tone and intensity and the killer’s helplessness before them is clear and almost heartbreaking. When one has the power to speak but does not do so, the effect can be more intense than if one had indeed made use of that power. Fritz Lang recognized this fact and signs of that recognition are apparent throughout the run of M. Furthermore, the contrast between the sound of the film and the images which are presented for viewing are clearly developments that were impossible to achieve with silent film. For instance, when the killer, Hans Becker, first appears in the film, only his shadow is seen but his voice, enticing and amiable, is heard and the audience knows that this is the killer through these audio and visual clues. Also, the method by which the murderer is ferreted out by the criminals is through sound: the tune which the killer whistles (In The Hall of the Mountain King) is recognized by a blind balloon seller. Lang counterpoints sound and image with precision so that often the sound will enhance and expand the implications of the image rather than simply accompanying it. A prime example of these moments in M is the montage during which Elsie’s mother calls her name and images are shown of the empty stairwell, Elsie’s empty place at the table, the empty yard, and finally Elsie’s ball is shown rolling down a hill and her balloon is seen, absently caught in telephone wires. In this instance the sound of the mother’s voice links the otherwise seemingly unrelated images together to give them a new, sinister meaning. The sound occasionally will precede an image, or overlap onto the following image, bringing it thus even closer to the one preceding it. Allusions of overlapping sound and associations of ideas accelerate the rhythm of the film’s action and add to its depth and greater meaning. In the film also the sound does not serve only to further the narrative but to elaborate on it, as in the scene where Inspector Lohnmann is discussing the processes by which the police are attempting to track the murderer and a collection of various scenes are shown during his voiceover. As Jensen writes of Lang’s body of work, “the development of sound made it possible for the director to avoid an emphasis on editing... and to make active use of silence” (293). That being said, however, Lang doesn’t seem able to resist using the newfound form to his greatest advantage within the film, particularly as a recurring narrative device. The whistling of the murderer is a key example of this, as is the fact that the murderer’s hiding place in the attic of the building where he seeks refuge is discovered because of the noise he makes with his knife while attempting to escape. The intensity of the mob sequences is heightened by the presence of sound as is the climax of Becker’s defensive cries and insistence that he must kill due to an uncontrollable impulse within himself. Sound functions therefore in many different ways within the film: it is a plot device, it is a vehicle by which Fritz Lang establishes and maintains his unique style of creating fear and tension, it is an exhibitionistic gimmick, and it enhances the action and the visuals of the film. The use of sound in this film allows it to be great and unique in the ways which it has become notorious. Thus M is one of the first early German sound films of the 1930’s which “make[s] use of sound rather than allow[s] it to control [the film]” (Jensen 293).

    Hence it is that M, seventy-one years after its initial release in Germany, has endured through the years and down the paths of history to be revered today as one of the greatest German films released before World War II. The film was Fritz Lang’s first sound film and Lang was able to make use of sound in a creative and effective manner which was almost unique and was certainly atypical of German sound film of the time period. It also provided Lang with the grounds by which he could develop his own particular style of filmmaking, free from the hassle of creating film only as a visual medium. The unique position of M as a post-World War I and post-German Expressionism film as well as a pre-World War II, pre-Nazi film causes it to be overlooked quite often in the pages of cinematic history, but it is vital to film history nonetheless.


This page last updated July 26th, 2002

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