Every director has a personal set of instruments to affect the audience. Back in the 1930s both spectators and visual impact factors differed from those existing now. Nowadays, while watching Lang’s M (1931), some visual aspects, the choice of camera angles, length of shots, cast, and overall construction of mis en scene might seem strange or even funny. Though Lang succeeded in shaping the panic impact through non-living objects being as meaningful as people or sounds.
Personally, one of the most impressive parts of the movie is the part that shows how the girl disappears and how her mother is waiting for her. What is interesting is that this part shows very few people and sometimes even no one. The director was able to convey the sense of panic by filling the shot with things that bear such a big meaning that even no words or people are needed to explain the context (Ebert, 1997).
The girl plays with a ball. She looks secluded from the rest of people as she walks to the information post with the poster about the missing children and reward. What is in the shot? What is behind the shot? What conveys the panic in the shot? Although it is hard to assume that the girl actually plays with the ball and reads, the shot is centered on the poster with the ball that bounces off the post. I guess the real message was to unite the girl with the missing children, while the ball was the countdown of her last minutes.
The shot that does not contain any person conveys a meaningful message about both involved characters. The big letters of the poster are the destiny of little Elsie, the last page of her life that interacts with her ball and approaching shadow. The poster, the shadow, and the ball are the three non-living objects that reflect the tension of the event. The voice behind the scene says, “You have a very beautiful ball. What’s your name?” (M, 1931).
This short voice intrusion touches panic, and since then the audience sees nothing that would directly tell how the girl was killed. Later, spectators see only a ball rolling out of the bushes and a balloon. The murderer took her live as easily as the wind took her balloon up into the electric lines and away. Again, Fritz Lang uses objects to portray the dramatic outcome of events. No people or words are necessary to prove that it was the last moment of the girl’s life. Even if there were no sound of a gunshot, the audience would understand the context of the ball and the balloon.
And finally, the scene where Elsie’s mother starts to worry. She follows her daily routine until the clock warns her that something is wrong in the sequence of the day. Apart from her growing worries, several non-living objects, including an already mentioned wall clock, signify the last moments before the girl was murdered. Together with Elsie’s ball, the clock played the same role and escalated the panic. Moreover, just before the audience could see the ball last time, Lang used three more people-empty symbols to continuously rise the panic: an empty staircase, an empty attic, and an empty chair in front of the table laid for the girl’s meal.
Regarding this part of the movie, Fritz Lang focused on objects as symbols that convey the meaning of escalating panic in the audience and further panic in the shaken society. The objects – ball, shadow, balloon, poster, wall clock, empty staircase, attic, and laid table – are the combination of the director’s talent and the legacy of silent movies with bigger emphasis on images that used to deliver a greater portion of the emotional impact.
- M. Dir. Fritz Lang. Nero-Film, 1931.
- Ebert, Roger. “M Movie Review & Film Summary (1931) | Roger Ebert.” Roger Ebert. Ebert Digital LLC, 03 Aug. 1997. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.