The Sound of Silence in Fritz Lang’s M


In his essay, Kaes underlines Lang’s aversion toward the sound film: “(r)umors had spread about his fundamental opposition to sound.” (Kaes, 16), and when the UFA urged Lang “to ‘modernise’ the film (Woman in the Moon SR) and add a soundtrack, he flatly refused and instead left his long-term employer before his contract expired.” (Kaes, 16). A striking aspect of M is the thrifty use of sound throughout the film, and the reduction of its use to the minimum makes the film almost work like a silent film. I’d like to suggest that this peculiar use (or not use) of sound has a specific goal.

As Doane points out, the “fear on the part of the audience of being ‘cheated’ is one of the factors which initially limits the deployment of sonorous material” (Doane, 276). I believe that Lang’s use of sound in this film mostly aims precisely to cheat the audience, to mock sound cinema. As already mentioned, the diegetic sound throughout the film is reduced to the minimum (mostly steps and dialogues), and sometimes it is sudden and very short, like for instance the sound of heavy traffic, to which no actual images correspond, while there is no hint of such traffic anywhere in the film. Belton states that “(s)ound lacks ‘objectivity’ (thus authenticity) not only because it is invisible but because it is an attribute and is thus incomplete it itself. Sound achieves authenticity only as a consequence of its submission to tests imposed upon it by other senses – primarily the sight.” (Belton, 290) I’d go a step further and suggest that in M sound sometimes is not only not objective, but also sheer useless, even counterproductive.

The voices of people talking on the street are peculiar too: their clear echoes make it evident that “M is entirely a studio production” (Kaes, 9), the film was in fact shot in the “Staaken studios (a former Zeppelin hangar from World War I)” (Kaes, 15); the dimension of the hangar explains the echoes of the voices in the film. I do not think that people working at the film did not realize it. I believe they kept it that way to produce a “contradiction between word (sound in this case SR) and image” (Kaes, 24), which reminds of Brecht’s Epic Theater.

Moreover, the voice of a character sometimes becomes the voiceover of the following scenes, and here the film strongly reminds me of documentary films. Nevertheless this commenting voice is slightly different from the voiceover in documentary as Doane describes it: “(t)he voiceover commentary in documentary (…) is, in effect, disembodied. (…) It is precisely because the voice is not localizable, because it cannot be yoked to a body, that it is capable of interpreting the image, producing its truth.” (Doane, 281), since we know whom each voice belongs to. Anyways, such scenes endowed with a voiceover are the description of the fingerprints (15:52 – 16:15), the handwriting and the psyche of the murderer (16:39 – 17:13), the engagement of the policemen (17:35 – 18:12), the investigation (18:13 – 19:29; 21:05 – 21:56), the old distillery where the mock trial takes place (1:34:50 – 1:35:03), and finally the report of the burglary (1:28:54 – 1:30:08). This voiceover however does not work like Doane’s documentary voiceover, “in which the sound carries the burden of ‘information’ while the impoverished image simply fills the screen.” (Doane, 282), because given the diegesis of the film, I think that all those scenes speak for themselves and they actually do not need any explaining voiceover; therefore I’d suggest that Lang used sound here to show its uselessness in fictional films.

Interestingly enough, the moments before the raid into the criminals’ bar (22:11 – 23.22), when cars brakes on the street with countless policemen getting off and walking toward the bar, is completely silent. A scene, which one could expect to be rather loud is soundless, but nevertheless it works well. Here, again, I’d suggest that Lang wanted to point out the superficiality of sound.

On the other hand, there is a specific sound that plays a peculiar role in the film, i.e. the sound of whistles, which stands for moments of discovery: whistles sound loudly when the criminals realize that the police are storming into bar (23:23); Inspector Lohmann whistles when he understands that one of the criminals’ ID is a counterfeit (26:43); a loud whistle is to be heard when the criminals enter the entrance of the building where they know they will find Beckert (1:11:11); and Kaes interprets Beckert’s whistling Peer Gynt as a sound that “subtly exteriorizes his subconscious, also suggesting the punishment that he expects and want” (Kaes, 21), and thus his desire to be discovered.

As already mentioned, I believe that the way Lang employs sound in M represents his plea for the silent movie. The most important scene in the film, the scene in which Beckert’s guilt and perversion is the most evident, is almost completely silent. I’m referring to the scene when we see for the first time Beckert’s reaction to the sight of a little girl (in the scene with Elsie Beckmann at the beginning of the film, we don’t see his face as only his shadow and his back are shown). The initial and the final parts of the sequence (52:33 – 53:20 and 54:18 – 54:45) are completely silent; in between there are the traffic sounds, his whistling of Peer Gynt, and finally the conversation between the little girl and her mother. But the shots where we see his physical reaction to the sight of the girl and to the missed opportunity to kill another child are completely soundless. I think here Lang wants his film to be silent to better emphasize Lorre’s magnificent acting and facial expression. As Doane states, ”(t)he absent voice reemerges in gestures and the contortions of the face – it is spread over the body of the actor.” (Doane, 275) And as a matter of fact “Lorre fascinated Lang because his round, child-like face and his corpulent body seemed to conceal a demonic force which might erupt at any moment.” (Kaes, 25) The use of sound here would probably distract the audience from Lorre’s bravura performance, which would find a more appropriate setting in the silent film.


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