The director of M, Fritz Lang, enjoyed a long and successful career in Hollywood after escaping Germany before the rise of the Nazis reached the full flowering of its psychopathic potential. Lang became one of a number of European expatriates seeking asylum in the United States to escape the bottomless depths of ignorance, stupidity and malevolence that is fascism. Germany’s loss was Hollywood’s gain in the form of Lang’s Expressionist influence on its visual style. One of the last films Lang directed in Germany before emigrating to the U.S. was also his first attempt to make a movie using the new technology enabling motion pictures to be heard as well as seen. The assuredness with which Lang adopted this latest innovation to enhance that movie—titled simply M—is nothing less than astonishing and represents one of the most extraordinary demonstrations of directorial influence in the history of the cinema.
To fully appreciate Lang’s influence, context is vital. Directors would never enjoy the total freedom allowed by the lack of ability to use sound. Without the necessity for recording dialogue, the camera was as free as its weight allowed it to be. Meaning that the only obstruction placed upon the director moving the camera to record a scene was the actual physical limitation of moving the bulky machines. Once sound was adopted, such freedom was corralled by the necessity for silence in order to record the lines being spoken by the actors.
Fritz Lang proved with M that he was not only a great visual stylist, but also capable of using his directorial eye to manipulate and exploit the technical limitations that recording sound imposed upon him to actually enhance rather than negate the impact of the visual image. The means by which Lang moved the potential for motion picture forward when so many of its talented silent film directors were pushing it backward toward essentially becoming filmed stage plays is a textbook lesson in how to use the imagination to bull one’s way past seemingly impossible obstacles.
Lang’s influence on not just M but the entire film industry resulted from his intuitive understanding that the very nature of filmmaking differed from stage drama by virtue of its ability to transcend time and space without interrupting the narrative or intruding on the realism. Even more importantly for the purpose of cinematic expression was that this transcendent quality also meant he could remain relatively free to move his camera just as freely as he’d always done when making silent movies. The trick was to bypass the conventional notion that sound needed to be recorded live on the set during the filming of the scene. One of the most influential decisions that Fritz Lang ever made in his career was to record most of the sound and dialogue he needed within the controlled sonic atmosphere of the studio and then apply that to the visual images during post-production after the principal photography had already been completed and developed.
This realization freed Lang from the immobile constriction that was hampering other directors attempting to master the “talkies” while have no negative impact on the utility of sound. Lang could use all the German Expressionist techniques he had mastered to create an oppressive sense of suspense and an atmosphere of dread and horror and then actually intensify that feeling by the judicious use of sound. Among the memorable ways in which he accomplished this include: ·
• the shadow of a figure cutting across a poster on a wall asking for information about a missing girl while a young girl bounces her ball against it and the figure says what a nice ball she has before asking the little girl her name
• a mother’s voice calling out for her daughter while the camera focuses on an empty chair
• the repetitive whistling of the same song by the murderer which ultimately becomes the means by which he is discovered
• the increasing cacophony of a crowd intent on lynching the suspected child killer
Another influence of Lang on M that is felt in films and—especially—many TV crime dramas is for a line of dialogue to begin with one character in a scene and then make a cut so that the line ends in a completely different scene often spoken by an entirely different character. This convention of modern cinema was a revolutionary approach undertaken by Lang primarily for the purpose of smoothly using the possibilities of sound recording to retain rather than contain the natural kinetic energy afforded by film to advance a narrative.