The Sound of Strangeness: Fritz Land & The Invention of M

Fritz Lang’s M is a bizarre story. Perhaps even more than its iconic status, this inherent strangeness has drawn adapters — including Ryan Landry — to fathom its murk.

The tale of a city panicked by an elusive child-killer is certainly macabre enough to grip the imagination of any age. But the film subverts ordinary patterns of drama, suspense, and fear. The main action centers not on whether the murderer will be caught, but instead on who will catch him: the beleaguered police force or the efficient criminal underworld. Rather than a devious predator, the killer himself is a wide-eyed creature of instinct whose victims stumble into his grasp of their own accord. By casting Peter Lorre, an unimposing comedic actor, Lang made a striking move away from the stereotypical villains of the silent era. In further contrast to the melodramatic conventions of the age, and to Lang’s own aesthetic, the script contains no love stories — indeed, there are few personal relationships of any kind. The main character of the film is not the self- effacing homicidal loner or the clever men on his heels, but rather a city of frantic crowds and vengeful tribunals, terrified and enthralled by a phantom in its midst.

The challenges that Lang faced in adapting his artistry to the medium of sound allowed him to demonstrate extraordinary creativity. M was his first talkie, and for it, he invented techniques that are now so standard it is easy to forget how unusual they seemed at the time. These included the use of sound to anticipate a shift in location and the close association of a musical theme with a specific character, an idea derived from opera. The murderer’s whistled rendition of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” transformed it from a trivial bit of late Romanticism to a ubiquitous leitmotif of foreboding.

Upon release, M was seen as dangerously corrupting even as it was lauded. Its strangeness unsettled and fascinated a public desperate for clear-cut answers. “Things get really evil only when raw and uncivilized sentiments are mixed with the most refined and highly civilized ability!”, Gabriele Tergit proclaimed in a 1931 review, prefiguring Nazi claims that “the Jew Lorre” had used Lang’s artistry to spread an insidious message of moral relativism. This seems a strange criticism to level at a film that castigates society in general, and mothers specifically, for their lack of vigilance. Yet perhaps the film’s atmosphere has proved more durable than its judgments. Its mix of sophistication and corruption represents the basis of noir, perhaps the only fictional genre that owes its existence almost entirely to cinema.

Classic yet revolutionary, a product of its time yet startlingly prescient, M has proven so irresistible to adapters. Yet these adaptations tend to succeed not when they blindly ape the original, but rather when they re-imagine it. Lang claimed that his masterpiece reflected “the rhythm of our times.” Eighty years later, his macabre classic demands both reverence and ongoing re-invention.

— Sam Lasman

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