Sunday, May 23, 2010

Fritz Lang’s M

Fritz Lang opens his film M with a striking illustration of a grasping hand with the letter M scrawled onto the palm. The opening title foreshadows the identity of the murderer who will later be revealed. After the next title card (which declares this to be a Fritz Lang film), the scene turns to black with a dramatic musical note and the sound of children reciting a grim nursery rhyme about “the nasty man in black” who will come and chop you up. Interestingly, Lang chooses to open on black, and then cuts to an over the top shot of a girl reciting and pointing to each of the children who surrounds her in a circle. The game emphasizes the murderer’s randomness when choosing a victim. This shot almost takes on a point-of-view quality, yet it immediately tracks upward to a mother who overhears the children and asks them to stop singing the macabre rhyme. It appears as if someone (like the murderer) is overseeing the children’s interaction. Once the mother departs, the children hypnotically continue their rhyme as if this was their predestined fate. It seems that these children are already aware of the dangers that lie ahead and have little to declare in their defense and protection. There is a certain resignation within the children, as if they are purely awaiting their own demise.

Fritz Lang’s stark black and white takes on a German expressionistic quality, especially with the next couple of shots. First there is a mother who awkwardly ascends the stairs with a basket of laundry, bearing the burden of motherhood, who then passes the laundry to another mother who is washing the clothes in a big basin. Though we see the woman climbing the stairs, the destination is filled with darkness. This scene cuts to another scene of a little girl almost getting hit by a speeding car; her vulnerability is then protected by an on duty police officer who steps in to assist. Lang then cuts again to the mother setting the table for dinner and then back to the little girl bouncing a ball. The ball eventually is bounced against a poll that has a reward sign for the identity of the killer at large. As the girl’s ball ricochets against the reward sign, the shadow of the killer appears, as if summoned by the girl’s nursery rhyme.

Fritz Lang’s opening to M, is one of the most well-crafted scenes found in a thriller. It says so much with little dialog, and yet, being an early sound picture, it uses sound in important ways. Later in the film, the use of sound acts as a motif and clue to help solve the murders, for the killer is revealed to be constantly whistling the same song. Lang emphasizes emptiness in certain scenes, with the abstract stairwell, the barren landscape with the rolling ball, the lonely balloon tangled in the telephone line and the untouched dinner plate where the missing girl was to eat. Fritz Lang’s message of detachment and emptiness is further exemplified by Peter Lorre’s performance of a man who is as missing and hidden from the world as his victims.

Like Lang’s previous film Metropolis, M’s world is made up of that of the people versus the authority. Where Metropolis’ despotic world is challenged by the factory workers, M’s lynch mob challenges an ineffectual police force. However, it seems as if Lang finds both sides to be unsatisfactory, for he creates a humorously cynical vision of both. At the end of the film, it is clear that Lang’s sympathies have been with the killer the whole time, for he is the true outcast who doesn’t fit with either side. He is the real victim who is incapable of stopping his actions due to illness, not by choice. When looking at M, it is clear to see how German Expressionism influenced the form of American Film Noir, with its doomed protagonist and the use of lights and darkness of shadows.

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