Power and Presence in Fritz Lang's M (1931)
In the penultimate scene of Fritz Lang’s M (1931), mentally-disturbed child murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) falls to his knees before a kangaroo court and cries out, “I have to roam the streets endlessly, always sensing that someone’s following me. It’s me! I’m shadowing myself!” Beckert’s monologue conveys that a disparity exists between his shadow and his self, and it becomes apparent that his self cannot exist without his shadow. For most of the film, the Beckert on screen is a “shadow,” a monster; only at the end is the schizophrenic self revealed. As a shadow, he is a looming societal menace, holding the masses in a powerful grip of fear; as a self, he begs them to understand that his desire to kill is pathological. Thus, his trajectory from shadow to self – an increase in physical presence – corresponds with his loss of power over society. Numerous aspects of the film’s cinematography – most notably image contrast and camera position – convey these themes of presence and power. Ultimately, with the humanization of a monster and the inversion of the power dynamic, it becomes difficult to determine which is more disturbed: Beckert or society.
Although Beckert is not physically present in the opening shot of M, it might be said that his shadow seems to lurk somewhere just outside the frame. In the high-angle crane shot, a group of children play a darkly serious, yet innocuous, circle game: the dark corners of the frame and the brighter lighting of its center illustrate this dichotomy. Although their huddled, well-lit faces crowd the frame, shadows interspersed among the children haunt what otherwise might have been thought of as a safe space. Additionally, the shadows connect this onscreen space with the implied blackness of offscreen space – where Beckert, the “man in black,” physically resides. The quick fade-in to this opening shot from black may symbolize that the “man in black” metaphorically hovers over the children. Thus, the high angle of the camera signifies the power Beckert possesses over society’s children: they lie below him, but within his grasp to toy with as he chooses. And yet this is merely his “shadow.” In this diegesis, power does not necessitate physical presence. As the camera moves to the left and tilts up to a brightly lit balcony, the reframed shot depicts a woman in a white apron gazing down at the children, and the low-angle suggests that she is a source of power, or even a protector. Yet, after she disappears into offscreen space, the camera lingers upon the balcony, attributing a sense of emptiness – but not shadow – to her authority position. The children’s resumption of their game confirms that the woman’s power over the children is limited, despite her physical, and seemingly dominant, presence. In a sense, this shot acts as the film’s establishing shot, briefly sketching out the psychological terrain between Beckert and society: this society seems to respond to the power of shadow rather than that of presence.
With the shot of Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut) reading the “Who is the murderer?” placard, Beckert’s shadow moves into onscreen space. In the beginning of the shot, the camera tracks right, following Elsie and her bouncing ball as they navigate obliviously through a shadowy world. Although shadows are splayed in every direction with each step, she remains solely focused on playing with her ball; like the other children, she is engrossed in a game. However, unlike the opening shot, the camera here is positioned at Elsie’s level, suggesting that she is not currently cognizant of the “shadow.” When she begins bouncing her ball against the placard, she even interacts with the offscreen space that had been menacing in the opening shot. As the camera pans right and rises up to the placard, the question of “Who is the murderer?” bears down on the girl with a power that she may not yet fathom. But as the shadow of Beckert looking down at Elsie overlays the word “murderer” high up on the placard, his power over the girl is firmly established. As the shadow subsequently bends down towards Elsie, it seems as if Beckert preys upon her. Although the camera angle of the opening shots depicted Elsie’s mother (Ellen Widmann) as being in a high position, this is also a distant position (involving a particularly long staircase), making her powerless to help her daughter in danger. As “shadow,” Beckert remains hardly existent in society – and therefore consistently powerful.
With the medium shot of Beckert looking at himself in the mirror, he becomes physically present onscreen, and his dichotomous self begins to become exposed. The shadow persona, although still extant, has become complicated, as conveyed with the use of brighter lighting. The brighter palette indicates a removal from the previous shot of murderous empowerment. In this shot, two Beckerts can be observed (and likened to the Beckerts previously discussed): the mirror Beckert, representing the “shadow,” and the actual Beckert, representing the self. The mirror Beckert’s face is deliberately distorted into that of a monster, suggesting that the actual Beckert is testing out – and probably struggling to fathom – his “shadow” part. Only a shadowy half of the actual Beckert’s face can be observed, conveying the inaccessibility of the entire self at this point in the film. In addition, the distance between these two faces signifies the discrepancy between these two identities. The slightly low-angle of the shot acts as an early indication that the monstrous “shadow” reflected in the mirror dominates the more complicated self. Literally and symbolically, Beckert has donned a white undershirt: the power that he possessed as the “shadow” – the “man in black” – has begun to wane.
Two subsequent shots illustrate the gradual cinematographic grounding of Beckert: when he gazes at the knives in the storefront window, and when he is marked with an “M.” In the medium shot of Beckert window-shopping, he is dressed entirely in black – the attire of the “shadow.” However, his head is framed within a square reflection of knives, conveying the psychological entrapment of the self. Although these weapons would literally be used on the nearby girl, they also metaphorically carve away the self’s grip on sanity. In this daytime environment, there are far fewer shadows; instead, there are reflections, and in his reflection he perceives not a monster but a man, sick with a kind of uncontrollable hunger. When he stares at the offscreen reflection of the girl, his gaze is virtually on level with hers – this is a powerless self. A later scene positions Beckert in a medium two-shot with a girl, and although he is significantly taller, he does not seem to dominate the shot. The level camera height positions both characters in equally sized spaces within the frame, as if it were an encounter between equals (the girl even playfully pokes him with his own knife!). Although they are surrounded by shadows, each face is brightly lit – an oddly child-like innocence seems to momentarily cross Beckert’s face. Here he unsuspectingly becomes a marked man; however, the increased presence of the self primes his downfall.
In the penultimate scene of the film, a medium shot depicts Beckert confessing to the masses – powerless during his complete exposition of the self. The camera has gauged his complete loss of power, from hovering above children, inspiring fear, to being brought right down to Beckert’s level: on his knees. Here, his entire face is observable – the self that the cinematography has made inaccessible for most of the film is now visible. His face is cast half in shadow and half in light, conveying a dichotomy of an impulsive animal and a frightened child. The bright light shining down upon him demythifies him as an impenetrable force of evil – he has been removed from shadows (and yet of course the shadow on his face must remain). By Othering the child murderer within in his monologue, Beckert’s character has become something more human than just a monster. Thus, the film ultimately conveys a troubling positive correlation between presence and humanization for Beckert, which prompts a discussion of his society.
Over the course of M, Lang’s camera meanders through a German city’s streets, depicting a world mostly divested of sunlight, and instead defined by its shadows. In these shadows lie fear, paranoia and the combative urge to achieve power. At one point, Beckert as a “shadow” achieves an almost-hegemonic power over all levels of society, thus causing all of society to become enshrouded in shadow. But at the end of the film, when the masses capture Beckert, it seems that not just a single man but also an entire society is mentally disturbed – each member is a dichotomous self with a thoughtless, uncompromising desire to kill another. It might be said that, in the eyes of the masses, when Beckert is marked with an “M,” it marks him both as a “murderer,” and as “murdered.” The kangaroo court will not consider his plea of psychopathology: they want to flush one man out of existence to make up for all of human imperfection. But the reality is that any man of society could have been affected like Beckert was. Thus, such societal fears about the human condition are unconquerable – a shadow is attached to every self. Hence, Lang’s film may be a commentary on the societal shadows of a Germany on the precipice of Nazism.
Lang, F. (1931). M. Los Angeles: Paramount.