“M” is for Modern (Dialectic)

“M” for Mirrors

Child and murderer shadow in 1931
M, Child and murderer shadow, 1931

Fritz Lang’s M is the story of a child murderer, Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre), in Germany’s 1931 pre-Nazi economic depression. M was a new, original commentary on the conditions of the time, of the emerging concept of seriality in its most hideous form –serial murder and the paradigm of which was yet to come– and on society’s reaction to it, mass hysteria, a macrocosmic horde mentality where society can no longer think or feel properly. Beckert’s first close-up, and his later discovery of the “M” mark set up of a visual metaphor through a kind of intellectual montage. The framing, camera movement, and acting in these two scenes outline the coexistence and disparity between the image and the real, predicting what would be the dialectic of the modern era.

“M” for Madness

These two scenes become particularly meaningful because of the double-framing the mirrors. And what does a murderer look like? Beckert himself must have been wondering that as he gazes at his own image in the mirror. As the authorities try to create a physical and psychological profile of him, Beckert is doing the same in front of the mirror. The audience sees him for the first time in a medium close-up, on a slightly low framing angle, distorting him slightly, giving him an air of grandeur; we are seeing him as he sees himself. We are not seeing a small, forgettable man, scared and alone; we are seeing the side of himself that feels powerful as murderer.

An image frames another image, that is, the murderer frames his own image on the mirror, and the murderer on the screen is just an image as well, and, like René Magritte’s This is Not a Pipeas to say, this is not a murderer, but the image of a murderer.

Magritte The Treachery of Images provides a cl...

He plays with his expressions in front of a glass reflection in a window shop. His image is framed by stacks of bullets for high frequency artillery like a machine gun, a recent enough invention, and the beginnings of automated serial murder of the looming World War I and the coming World War II.Beckert plays with his face, just like children do; he reveals the “actor’s personality” the police’s psychologist dictates in the background. Within this frame we see the murderer’s double personality: the docile, the child-like, and the monstrous, the ill. Lang cuts from the psychologist saying “play-acting,” to Lorre, who droops his eyes apologetically, looking “indolent or even lazy,” reinforcing the dialogue.

Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, gazing into a sho...
Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, gazing into a shop window. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lorre disfigures his face with his fingers and bulges his eyes “showing clear signs of insanity,” (the same eye-bulging will reappear later in another important scene). At this point, the camera cuts back to the psychologist saying “madness,” bringing to the surface the other face of Beckert, the miserable maniac. As Anton Kaes states in his book, M, “Beckert’s problem is thus framed between play-acting and madness, between simulation and illness.” Though it was Lang’s first sound film, it effectively juxtaposes sound and image to further accentuate this duality.

M” for Murderer

In the mirror scene is when the audience first identifies the murderer, though the community within the story still has not. In the mark scene though, it’s  Beckert who identifies himself as the murderer; the “play-acting” is done, and the “truth” and the deceiving image become one. A medium close-up of his expression of terror shows this fusion: only his child self can feel terror, but the murderer self is powerful, not vulnerable; so only when the child becomes the murderer can he feel guilt and terror. His facial expression in this scene loops back to the grimace he made in the earlier mirror scene (Kaes).

Cover of "M - 2 Disc Special Edition - Cr...
M mirror scene. Cover via Amazon.

Again, framing plays a crucial role in the scene. Brecht is framed first within the shot, then by his own face, which occupies the entire left side of the screen; his face in turn frames his reflection on the mirror, which is also framed within the mirror. This, orchestrated with high contrast and hard shadows, creates a very graphically stunning composition. It almost eliminates greys; the audience is not preoccupied with middle-grounds. It is simple and striking, leaving a lasting impression on the viewer. Behind stark shadows and a somber mood, the high contrast black and white again mimics the dialectic of the film, the opposition of good and evil, of image and reality.

“M” for Metaphor

The mirror scene and the mark scene are joined together formally and thematically. They are points of inflexion in the visual narrative, they both serve as moments of recognition and realization. Mainly, the parallel framing and acting connect the beginning of the conflict and the beginning of the climax. In the mirror scene, we know. In the mark scene, he knows they know.

The two scenes not only share parallel framing and other elements of mise-en-scene, they also create a picture within a picture: the child within the murderer and the murderer within the child, both framed by insanity. The juxtaposition of child and murderer show the disparity between two faces of the same man, the modern era’s dialectic: the incongruity and fusion of the image and the real.

9/9/08

  • M (brobrubel.wordpress.com)
  • M (1931) (benjaminlamb1.wordpress.com)

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