Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds
Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut, Otto Wernicke, Theodor Loos
‘Cinema as Language’
Fritz Lang is probably better known for the other famous film of his expansive career ‘Metropolis’ which gives a look into a not so distant Fordist dystopian society, myth and legend surround it. It cost so much to make that it crippled the German film industry and accidents on set nearly claimed the lives of several cast members.
But M, Fritz Lang’s third film after Metropolis is a classic of the noir genre and pure advert of his style. The plot focuses on the exploits of a child murderer within a small town. After several children go missing the town’s local criminals band together to form a vigilante group and aim to catch the killer themselves and administer their own kind of justice. The beauty of this film is that it covers such dark topics and is in no way explicit or offensive. Using cinema language Lang’s power of deception trumps the literal techniques of modern film makers.
Film theorist Christian Metz devised a theory in which he proposed cinema had a language all of its own comparable to language and it is that theory which we will look at. Metz’s work centers around the use of metaphor and metonymy and in application to M we can see how this theory is relevant.
Metonymy: The child killer is shown in the first act only in partial detail. As a shadow or just his arm, his sinister child like whistle also foreshadows his arrival into scenes. His face is never seen so that we associate small telling details to his inclusion in the narrative rather than seeing him in full. This technique allows the viewer to identify with the inhabitants of the town. We do not know who the killer is either and it adds to the suspense.
Metaphor: Lang uses metaphor expertly as well to replace any scenes of gore or violence with simple suggestion. A young girl is shown holding a balloon just before she runs into the killer who leads her away. The next time we see the balloon is when its drifting aimlessly from behind a bush. We know what has happened and are still disturbed, but, not offended. Again this is used when the young girl’s mother is waiting for her daughter to return home, the plate of food she lays down for her remains untouched and silence dominates the scene to mirror the silence in the parents of the dead children’s lives.
Lang’s film was highly controversial for its day and even still in the 21st century. Cinema language, as proposed by Metz, is a theory that shows the visual trick will always be more expressive than the literal one. A return to simpler times is needed more in today’s film culture. And with M Fritz Lang showed that you can shock and audience and create suspense without having to make them want to be sick at the same time. Cinema has its own visual language for a reason and its there to be used.
Full movie below: