M (Fritz Lang, 1931)

One of the most prominent sequences in M is the little girl Elsie Beckmann’s (Inge Landgut’s) kidnapping, and it exemplary of the film’s two major stylistic choices: juxtaposition of discontinuous images with silence and the use of parallel cutting with overlapping dialogue.

Elsie’s mother looks at the chiming clock on the wall, smiling; the next shot is of the school entrance where parents presumably wait for their children to come out as we hear the chiming bells of the clock tower on the screen.  The following shot is of the mother again, preparing food; and the subsequent one is of Elsie trying to cross the street.  From this point onwards, the scene sets these two parallel events against each other as the shots continue to alternate between the portrayal of the worried mother waiting for her daughter and Elsie’s encounter with Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), the murderer.  There is minimal dialogue; the scene mostly depends on images and movement.  Towards the end, what began as parallel editing loses its rhythm and decomposes into a collage of abstract and metaphorical images coupled with complete silence.

This shift starts with the camera showing Elsie’s mother from inside her flat, walking out towards the staircase.  The next shot is an overview of the staircase from her point of view and we hear her call out her daughter’s name for the first time.  She comes into the apartment and looks up; her look is reciprocated with the shot of the clock on the wall.  Subsequently, we see her walking toward the window and opening it in an impulsive and anxious reaction to the voice of a street vendor from outside; she bends down and calls out for Elsie again.  To our surprise, instead of a shot of the street, there is the same shot of the staircase once more, followed by a shot of what appears to be a laundry room; the camera is fixed and there is hardly any movement in the images, which are accompanied by the mother’s repeated calls.  The next three shots similarly stay on the screen for about five seconds each, but this time the sound is completely removed.  We see Elsie’s empty chair by the table and the untouched lunch prepared by her mother; then some grass and bushes, which is presumably a part of a larger field, out of which Elsie’s ball rolls; then an electric pole against the sky and her balloon caught between its wires, fluttering.  The sequence ends with a fade-out to black.

M_02 M_03 M_04

These concluding shots carry a common feature: they all lack Elsie.  The first two shots (of the staircase and the laundry room) refer to the locations in which her mother searches for her and probably where she usually is; the third (of the table) shows where she is supposed to be at this time of the day, and, finally, the last two point to where she is (or where she was just before she died).  Except for their shared purpose to signify Elsie’s past and present whereabouts, these ambiguous shots are spatially, temporally and causally disconnected from each other.  Moreover, they hold no spatial, temporal or causal specificity individually; this sequence takes place in the beginning of the film and we have almost no associations with the images that we see.  These final five shots last about half a minute in total, though they convey the passing of a much longer period of time.  Similarly, although the images are few, static and what they contain is minimal, they construct a significant part of the narrative.  The first part of this sequence tells us how Elsie has gone missing; the second part, which begins when the parallel cutting ends, suggests how and where people looked for her and how she was taken out of the city and murdered.  The disintegration of the parallel cutting not only hints at the murder and suggests an ending as a visual metaphor, it also reveals the inevitable: Elsie is no longer alive to be included in the frame and there is no movement or incident on her side.  In the end, the camera captures her belongings with which the characters (and we) remember and imagine her.

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