M: The omnipresence of evil and the questioning of social norms

The voices of playing children are heard in the opening moments of the movie M, the first sound film in Fritz Lang’s career. Then, from the bird’s perspective, we see dozens of girls and boys gathered in a circle in the yard of the old Berlin building. The girl at the centre of the circle sings the nursery rhyme about the arrival of a serial killer in black, who will cut them up with his knife. The camera further directs the action, in the same cut to a low angle view of one of the balcony buildings, from which the woman warns the children to stop singing that gruesome song.

Already in the first minute of the movie, the viewer is served a number of important information that was, in 1931, when the movie came out, really hard to imagine. In this scene, through a simple children’s game, Lang and his screenwriter Thea Von Harbou gave us plenty of information about the film narrative, the way the camera moves through the scene, was back then used strictly for action shots and, of course, there is a sound that goes beyond anything seen in the movie until that point.


The Sounds of Evil

Yes, the idea of sound in the film was there from the very beginning, in 1898, when Thomas Edison proposed Eadweard Muybridge’s “sound movie”. Yes, the first sound in the film came back in 1923 and Jazz Singer, was the first official “sound movie” in 1927, still, Fritz Lang has offered a number of innovative ways to use sound in his M.

Lang originally recorded 2/3 of the movie without sound (due to the cost of production) and in the postproduction, he added voice and music. Because of the financial limits, the filmmaker allowed himself to experiment. Only when enough attention is drawn, it becomes clear that in the most of the scenes that have a dialogue, actors are back facing the camera or the camera is at a great distance from their faces (to achieve simpler sound and picture synchronization).

Through his work, Lang uses four sound techniques: sound out of the box, sound in scene transition, voiceover, and silence. By combining these techniques, the narrative structure of the film, then only accompanied by moving images, gets a new dimension, where we have the opportunity to hear the killer whistle, get the summed reactions of society to his ordeal, or just feel the ghostly power that silence builds.

Foundations of Evil

According to critics of the time, the film is based on the real case of Peter Kurten’s serial killer, named the “Dusseldorf vampire”, whose murders in Germany in the 1920s shook. However, Lang explicitly denied getting inspiration from that case. On the other hand, his screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, carefully investigated the crimes of that time, consulted with the German police, visited murders and even talked to sexual offenders in jail.

The final result was the story of Franz Becker, a serial killer of a mild face, whose victims are innocent children. Becker’s appearance in the film is omnipresent, just like the appearance of evil in general. Yet, unlike the evil, which is filmed in different ways, the killer Becker is the only one who questions and reflects what he does.

The birth of a noir genre

Though today’s perspective does not seem to be that obvious, Lang and Harbou’s M is a kind of “proto-noir”. While the films in the 1910s and 1920s were mostly shot on sets, M was (again due to budget constraints) made in the open, which in some way influenced later filmmakers like Carol Reed (The Third Man) to refuse to film their noir work on the set for the liveliness and insight that the real streets have. Another of the frequent visual elements in the noir movies, which came from Lang and Harbor’s work, is certainly a series of short, silent shots that easily tell viewers that the murder happened without the need for complex action scenes.

From the narrative point of view, noir is a genre that often requires its viewers to take up the position of morally questionable characters and to question social norms. In the Harbou’s script, this is done by taking positions of brutal police, corrupt mafia and also Becker. Perhaps the most significant contribution that M gave to noir genre is the ending in which the bad guy, in this case, the infamous Becker, requires our empathy, because just watching the society as a whole, his crimes make us feel pitiful. These scenes have become the foundation of the future popular genre to such an extent that even in later versions, such as the neo-noir, we still have great ending in which the villain gives a great empathic monologue, perhaps the most famous one being Tears in Rain where replicant Roy Batty faces Deckard in the ending of Blade Runner.

In the Shadows of Evil

In addition to so much effort in every aspect of the film, it would be superficial to say that Lang and Harbou, with the last project that they ever did, just wanted to scare people. Only when we move away from what is constantly in front of our nose, Becker, it is possible to notice what actually lies in the background.

Watching the film in the context of the time when this small low-budget study was created, it becomes clear that all the letters that the character of Becker’s killer sends to newspapers are just a desperate attempt to draw public attention to major and serious problems. Only when we see him questioning himself and becoming mad makes clear to us that he is just one creation of evil. Becker is only in the shadow of evil, while its true face is depicted in cops and criminals, freely walking the streets and performing their moral utopias among society.