Sympathy for the Devil – Fritz Lang’s M

I wrote most of this essay in college, 5 years ago, but after re-visiting this film the other day, I thought I’d post it (with a few edits, of course!)

M (Fritz Lang, 1931)

As M begins, viewers experience something they won’t experience for the rest of the movie: non-diegetic sound (sound heard only by the viewing audience, not by the characters). Before the movie even begins, a sinister sound comes from the speakers, acting as foreshadowing to the sinister movie viewers are about to watch.

The film is sinister in more than one way. In an obvious way, because it is about a child murderer. The lack of non-diegetic sound plays a large role in giving the film its eerie feeling. In almost all suspense and/or horror films today, non-diegetic music is required. When scary, overbearing music starts, viewers know something intense is happening or about to happen. Almost in that same way, M creates that effect with a lack of sound. Every time the sound in the film completely stops, something intense is happening or about to happen. The first time there is no sound is when viewers find out the murderer has just killed. We see the little girl’s ball roll out from behind the bushes and the balloon the murderer has just bought her is seen tangled in telephone wires. The absence of sound is easily more disturbing than scary music would have been. Silence is the sound of death, and the sound of secrecy.

The lighting in this film is as amazing as the sound. Much of the film is kept in the shadows, symbolizing the dark theme of the film. Where the film becomes less obviously sinister is during the murderer’s ‘trial’ (a scene where many of the locals basically decide they want to lynch him). The scene takes place at night in a darkly lit warehouse basement, as the murderer begs for his release, claiming he can’t control the urges he has. I believe Lang was saying a lot with this scene. First, and most obvious, is that people shouldn’t be executed for something they can’t control. This was a bold statement by Lang considering the time and place this film was made (1931, Germany). Another thing Lang is saying with this scene is that those who try to kill someone for something he can’t control are just as criminal as the killer himself. This is why, by the end of the film, viewers actually feel a bit of compassion towards the murderer. He is portrayed as child-like while his accusers act like animals.

His innocent look is also present in a previous scene where the locals have almost found the murderer in his hiding spot. The camera focuses on him crouching behind a few crates, in the dark. In the background viewers hear the criminals throwing things around in frantic search of the murderer. Finally, the lights are flipped on and he is found. As soon as the lights are flipped on, the murderer jumps to his feet and freezes, with a deer in the headlights look on his face. And, of course, the entire scene is accompanied by no soundtrack, only the sound of the locals slowly approaching.

The technical features Lang uses throughout M are crucial in bringing to life a realistic horror story where viewers feel they are actually taking part of these strange events. I believe Lang wants viewers to leave this feeling uncomfortable. The line between good and evil has never been so blurred.  8.5/10


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