Why Fritz Lang's M is the Best Noir to Predate Noir - VRGyani News and Media

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Monday, August 30, 2021

Why Fritz Lang's M is the Best Noir to Predate Noir

Dark, shadowy streets at dusk. An unnerving man with bulging eyes leads a little girl through eerily quiet alleyways. Several ominous figures pursue them in the hazy distance. On the shoulder of the strange man’s jacket, he is marked with a large ‘M’. This tense scene comes from Fritz Lang’s first sound film, aptly titled M. By its release in 1931, Lang had already established himself as a great filmmaker in Germany, with multiple silent masterworks under his belt. From Dr. Mabuse to Metropolis, these silents were defining works of German Expressionism, an artistic movement triggered by the country’s mood after World War I. Expressionism is characterized by extreme stylistic exaggeration and an often bleak worldview. With the utilization of sound providing a greater adherence to reality, M injects these Expressionist preoccupations into a more grounded crime drama, and in doing so anticipated the ensuing noir genre. Though it predates the noir era by some years, it’s horrific perspective and bizarre style keep it one of the great works of the genre.

Even today, M remains a deeply chilling work. There’s something that can only be described as misanthropic in the film. It presents a dreary world, full of grotesque and selfish characters. It follows an entire town’s bloodthirsty hunt for the serial child murderer Hans Beckert, played in a manic performance by Peter Lorre. Disturbing as it may be, the narrative is constructed with astonishing economy. An early sequence has the police commissioner and his secretary discussing their initial efforts in trying to catch the killer. Over their conversation, glimpses of these efforts are shown in a montage that moves from fingerprints being studied to woods being combed by officers. All the same, as they speculate about the killer’s identity, Hans is shown contemplating himself in a mirror with peculiarity. The entire film flows in this logical manner, only slowing down to create suspense as the chase heats up.

One central montage jumps back and forth between a police meeting and a mobster gathering. Both conference rooms are filled to the brim with smoke, and it’s clear that Lang considers all of these hideous men to be on the same level with one another. Each group is concerned with how they're going to track down Hans. The constant, intrusive efforts of the police have made it hard for the gangsters to go about their own illegal activities, so they want Hans off the streets just as much as the authorities do. Even more so, perhaps. The police seem less determined than their criminal counterparts, and despite their supposed responsibilities to the law, the police’s discussion is focused mostly on ways they can pass the case off onto other institutions. Indeed, the police are shown to even have a disdain for the public they serve. As the search goes on, they use dirty tricks to get their information, such as getting their witness to speak by cruelly convincing him that he’s being charged for the murders. This draws further connections to the mobsters, who at one point brutally torture a man for information.

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The mob’s own plan involves employing street beggars in a watch program, to keep an eye out for any instances of unusual figures approaching children. It’s these beggars who eventually mark the killer with the iconic ‘M’ and follow him in the distance. As one would expect with the sensible narrative flow, the gangsters’ discussion of beggars leads immediately to a long, elaborate tracking shot of various filthy men eating scraps of sausage, hoarding half-used cigars, and gambling. Only, here Lang employs the usually logical narrative progression to trick the viewer: the shot ends on the wall behind these men, on which a sandwich menu hangs next to a sign that reads “NO BEGGARS OR PEDDLARS.” These people are not beggars on the street, but the general public in a cafe. Just as the police are lazy and corrupt, and the criminals selfish and brutal, the average joe is dirty and grotesque in Lang’s cynical lens. A scene early on further emphasizes this. When an old man on the street innocently gives a little girl the time, an angry crowd surrounds him in seconds, convinced he must be the killer, and ready to rip him apart.

Much of the film’s exaggerated visuals accentuate this misanthropy. Extensive close ups with harsh lighting are meant to bring out each character’s ugliness, as are off-kilter angles which distort their proportions. One striking example of the latter technique comes in a scene of lead police inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wornicke) on the phone in his office. He is filmed from well below his desk, making him into a towering monster. The killer himself is introduced in the first scene only as a menacing silhouette, a shadow cast on his own wanted poster (in a stroke of cinematic genius on the part of cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner) while he approaches a young girl who plays in front of it. The identity of Hans as the murderer is only made fully explicit later on, when he considers approaching another girl in front of a shop. A reflection in the shop window creates a diamond of light around his face, as if to visually scream out “This is the killer!”

Much has been written about the film’s use of sound, and rightfully so, as it’s one of the film’s richest expressive elements. Hans constantly whistles Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” to the point that this tune becomes a more important calling card for his character than any visual. The film opens with a group of children singing about the killings as they play. After an adult complains about their grimness, a mother responds: “As long as we can hear them singing, at least we know they’re still there.” When the killer strikes, the deafening silence that follows can’t help but draw attention to itself. As the film runs, Lang increasingly contrasts the general ambience with moments of silence to help build tension.

The game of cat and mouse that builds through the film eventually leads to a haunting climax. Hans is subjected to a kangaroo court, whose intense desire to kill seems to match his own. Many have speculated that M was made in response to the direction Germany was headed at that time. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that Lang, who was Jewish, was disgusted by the rise of the Nazi culture that surrounded him. Along with its artistic roots in German Expressionism, this would lend a further social explanation for the film’s bitter perspective and grotesque style. Indeed, Lang would soon escape Germany for the United States, where he would further implant these sensibilities into the crime drama, creating some of the earliest American film noirs (You Only Live Once) and eventually some of the most popular ones (The Big Heat). But first, there was M.

KEEP READING: How 'The Long Goodbye' Updates and Satirizes the Noir Genre



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