M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M – A city looks for a murderer) is a 1931 German film directed by the legendary Fritz Lang. Lang, known for such films as Metropolis (1927), The Big Heat (1953) and Fury (1936), believed M to be his finest work. Being the first sound film he made, Lang managed to create a brilliant film, while still tackling a truly horrendous topic and all of the social complications that exist within it. His use of sound technology to overcome space and time issues in telling the story are truly ingenious for the time, making it a must-watch for film buffs everywhere.
In the film, the city of Berlin of is shown to being terrorized by an elusive child murderer, played by a baby-faced Peter Lorre (known for films such as Casablanca (1942) and The Maltese Falcon (1941)). The whole city is on the lookout for this murderer, causing mass hysteria to take over the streets of Berlin. In an attempt to capture the murderer, the police begin rounding up all the criminals in the city. In order to get the police off of their backs, the criminal leaders decide to take matters into their own hand and find the murderer themselves.
It’s hard to believe the film is Lang’s first talkie, as his use of sound technology here is absolutely remarkable. He uses sound as the primary way to unify a central idea through a series of sequences. For instance, the beginning of the film introduces the audience to the murderer not by showing him on screen, but rather by his whistling. These shots of him whistling while luring his young victim are intercut with a eerily quiet parallel action sequence of the victim’s mother awaiting the child’s return from school. This entire scene relies on the use of sound for its continuity and eventual culmination; the mother’s cries for her daughter become louder and louder as the time passes, then suddenly become a mere echo as audience’s are shown a shot of the child’s ball rolling through some bushes and her ballon stuck in a telephone line. It is apparent that something terrible has happened to the child; her mother has lost her.
Lang continues to use sound as the primary driving force within the film, such as when a crowd of people on a sidewalk are reading a bulletin posting about the latest heinous crime the murderer has committed. As they are reading the bulletin, the scene cuts to a group of rich men sitting at a table reading the exact same thing. This cut between two different social groups who are reading the exact same thing highlights the terror that the murderer has induced within all the citizens of Berlin. Dictating the edits via sound is also incredibly efficient as well, as the audience moves fluidly through diegetic time and space while still being able to follow the main story at hand.
Taking into account the idea that a film is a cultural product of its times, it isn’t hard to make the connection between the mob-mentality displayed in the film and the uprising of the Nazi party that was occurring at the same time in the real-world. Even before starting production on the film, Lang faced heavy criticism by Nazi-supporters who believed the film was supposed to depict Nazis.
Personally speaking, M is one of my favourite films of all-time. Film’s ability to evoke emotional responses within us merely through the way in which sounds and images are edited together is quite a remarkable thing when you think about it, and also something very unique to the film form. Lang evokes this exact sentiment through this powerful film which I truly urge you all to check out.
If you missed our screening of it on Friday October 16th @ 5pm in SS 203, you can always check out the TFDL or your local library for copies.
By Raeesa Farooqi