The fact that, after viewing Fritz Lang’s M, one will never hear Grieg’s Peer Gynt in quite the same way again speaks volumes of the film’s most brilliant asset: its innovative use of sound. M is, without question, the high water mark of Weimar era cinema, and the best film of Lang’s career in the eyes of many, including his own.
But let’s back up a bit. Any meaningful discussion on the merits of M must be properly placed within the context of the coming of sound to the medium itself. Through the din of today’s hyper-accessible, multi-media white noise, it is hard for many to comprehend silent film as anything beyond an inferior and defective medium that was only improved upon with the sonic innovations of the late 1920s, when the sound-stripping of celluloid finally synchronized aural with visual. But this is unfair; at the least a simplification, at the worst a gross injustice to the sophistication of the medium. By the coming of the first sound feature The Jazz Singer, silent film had evolved into its own complex film language, with its own rhythm, its own set of aesthetic rules; for example, by his masterwork Der Letze Mann, German director F.W. Murnau had managed to purge the ubiquitous intertitles altogether in favor of a universality of vision that transcended all languages and national demarcations. The artists’ protectiveness of this evolution can be seen by the reaction to the proposed transition, particularly from the creative elements. Producers and studio heads saw the gimmick and the novelty, and the subsequent dollar signs. Actors and directors saw the destruction of their craft by technicians and artless “inventors” who capriciously hocked their wares to an industry that could not resist this shiny new toy. After all, this was no small change; it was jumping off a cliff so to speak. The film medium was still relatively new and on tenuous footing. One misstep and all could come crashing down. For Germany, France, and the other European nations struggling to get films exported abroad, the problems went far beyond microphone placement and minimizing set noise: the coming of sound can be seen as an early instance of American dominance via cultural hegemony, an attempt to assert control over the international entertainment market under the dubious guise of “innovation.” At home, the new sound medium allowed studio heads the freedom to abolish existing star contracts and renegotiate on terms favorable to them, which they did with impunity, getting rid of a lot of squeaky wheels along the way. So no, it wasn’t just about getting to hear Al Jolson sing.
So back to Lang….Okay, a brief digression. In 1952, baritone-sax-great Gerry Mulligan moved to L.A. and started performing at the Haig with some other newcomers, including Chico Hamilton and Chet Baker. Red Norvo had just finished a tenure there and the upright piano had been removed from the stage to accommodate his older style of jazz. Mulligan–partly out of convenience, partly out of curiosity and the desire to push himself into uncharted territory–asked the management to leave it as is. As is evidenced in the earliest surviving demos, without the piano for harmony, this new quartet struggled with odd arrangements and awkward attempts at improvisation. But within weeks, their own unique song structures emerged, a West Coast jazz language built as much around communicative silences and pauses as East Coast bebop’s was all about bombast, speed, and notes-per-second.
M is Lang’s “pianoless quartet” moment, the point at which he struggled with a shifting technical variable–his first sound film–and ultimately envisioned something new, a use for audio beyond the banal conveyance of dialogue. He pioneered how sound could be manipulated to heighten the impact of constant intercutting between scenes, such as M‘s two concurrent discussions on how best to approach the capture of this troublesome child murderer, one happening at the police station, the other among the various “union” representatives of the criminal organizations, with Lang drawing ironic parallels between these two seemingly-opposed entities. In today’s films, such a montage is standard and barely noticeable, even a tired cliche. But in M, it still somehow feels fresh and revolutionary. Similarly, his use of operatic leitmotiv to impress upon the viewer the disintegrating chaos of a killer’s internal psyche is also highly advanced. And above all, the incredible intro sequence, with the girl’s abduction told through the repetitive, increasingly-distressed, off-screen calls from her mother, stretched across a triage of haunting sequential images: a human silhouette on a “Wanted” poster; a child’s rolling ball; a balloon snagged on a power line.
Lang’s oft-repeated tale of fleeing to France in the “dead of the night” after being approached by the Nazis to direct propaganda films has always held more than a whiff of fish story, with its self-aggrandized danger and egocentric escapism, as if his notoriety and position would have had no impact on his fate. Perhaps that is true. But like Pabst, who also declined to serve, I suspect he would have been simply ignored and marginalized. Contrary to his version of events, he did flee with all of his money and resources intact and also made several return trips to Germany from Paris before the outbreak of war.
Although fellow ex-pats Douglas Sirk and Billy Wilder achieved a level of success in the US rivaling Lang’s, it is only the latter whose cinematic greatness is divided equally between the pre and post war eras, with a cinematic canon spanning two languages. Lang would go on to direct some of the biggest and most important film noirs of the Hollywood era, particularly 1953’s The Big Heat, starring Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame. In M, within Peter Lorre’s complex serial killer, we see the early blueprint for what would become Lang’s trademark motif, and a cornerstone of practically the entire film noir genre: the doppelganger in conflict, the intermarriage of good and evil, and the non-judgmental exposure of the “grey zone” between the two.