Cinema: Sound Is Indebted To ‘M’, Fritz Lang Classic

Before there was Pennywise or Freddy Krueger, there was Hans Beckert, more commonly known as M, a moniker which doubles as the film’s English title as well. M, directed by Fritz Lang in 1931, is not only one of Germany’s most infamous crime thrillers, but a global trail blazer in cinematic history. Similar to the contemporary discussions over new film technology such as virtual reality or streaming services, the incorporation of sound was a highly debated topic. M is one of the first films that highlighted the significance and potential of sound.

In M, Berlin is terrorized by the serial abduction and murders of several children, most recent of which is a little girl named Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut). Shortly before her death, a blind balloon vendor (Georg John) hears a stranger accompanying Elsie whistle to the tune of ‘Hall of the Mountain King’. In response to the murders and the ensuing public panic, the police increase nightly raids and surveillance. While the police are understandably frustrated, interestingly, it is the gang leaders and common criminals who are most infuriated. The increase in police raids disrupt their illegal activities and the murderer is giving a bad reputation to all existing criminals. They may be murderers — of adults — liars, cheats, and thieves, but not even they are so deplorable to go after children. As such, the heads of the various gangs, led by the notorious Der Schränker (Gustaf Gründgens), decide to employ a homeless network of men to keep a constant eye on the city’s children. Simultaneously, the police conduct their own investigations into the homes of former asylum patients.

By chance, the blind vendor overhears the murderer, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), with another little girl. Beckert is slyly marked on his shoulder with the letter ‘M’ for murderer in chalk. Now able to trace him across the city, the criminals confine him to a building where they corner him and kidnap him to their own hideout. At the hideout, the criminals stage a kangaroo court, where one of their own is called upon to defend Beckert to the crowd crying for his death. Their debate over the morals and merits of capital punishment is interrupted by the police, who take Beckert into their custody. His final — and legal — sentence is never revealed and left ambiguous, interrupted instead by a closeup of the grieving mothers who lament the loss of their children.

In a time where the most recent special effect was still the incorporation of sound, M helped ease the transition from silent to sound. This is monumental, especially considering that many critics and fans of silent film alike feared that sound would be the ultimate ruin of cinema. M proved otherwise. From the jump scares of the car honks to Elsie's thumping rubber ball, sound is what carries the film. In fact, the greatest point of suspense is Beckert’s off-screen whistle. Beckert himself is never fully or directly seen until nearly halfway into the film. Prior to this point, he is only the sinister silhouette of a man and a chilling whistle.

Granted, the cinematography is not the most advanced, especially in comparison to the to the dynamic movement and capabilities of film in the 20s. The cinematography is mostly stagnant, left at a tableau position and featuring simple pans. Further, the middle portion of the film is rather bogged down by lengthy dialogue. Despite this, or perhaps even because of it, the entire premise and thrill is rooted in the usage of sound. Once M begins to pick up the pace, it steamrolls ahead.

Much like the film’s characters, the audience initially cannot see the murderer, only hear him. Often, there are sound bridges of diegetic noise; for instance, Elsie's mother calling her name as we see the empty and abandoned locations where she used to be. When the criminals are holding their own unofficial trial for Beckert, it’s so nerve-wracking because of the loud hollering of the crowd and the murderer's own shrill screams for justice. Truly, this film was only as impactful as it was thanks to sound.