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Expressionism is a style “dedicated to distorted camera angles and a harsh contrast of light and shadow” (Fabian Ziesing). Often in expressionist works “the representation of reality is distorted for the sake of conveying an inner vision”(Harvard). Words such as ‘dark’ ‘demonic’ ‘twisted’ ‘haunted’ and ‘tormented’ (Elsaesser 2000 p19) are relevant to expressionist cinema. There are many aspects in Fritz Lang.
’s ‘M’ that could be considered as expressionist, these are the topic, chiaroscuro (the use of light and shadow), abstraction and essentialisation, duality, the predilection for the studio, the use of objects and space and photography style.
One of the key features of expressionist film is its’ topic. The characteristic topics used in expressionist cinema tend to have a fascination with death, disease, illness, depression, despair and melancholy. There is very often a strong emphasis on psychological problems.
The themes used often in expressionist painting and literature are also present in expressionist cinema, “the theme of alienation, and of the individual as subject to tyrannical or supernatural forces beyond his or her control” (Aitken 2001 p54). Expressionist cinema depicts the unstable, unreality of society at this time. The most crucial themes of the genre are particularly present in ‘M’.
The murderer Hans Beckert is essentially a normal human being but when he sees a child he is overcome with the compulsion to murder.
He tries to fight his compulsion but the forces at work are beyond his control. It is an illness he didn’t choose to have and one he can’t control
“Beckert tries to suppress his devious instincts” (cyberroach.com) and control himself but fails and his transformation into the murderer is complete. Despair and depression often feature in expressionist cinema and are very apparent in ‘M’. When Elsie Beckmann doesn’t return home from school Lang. shows the despair of a mother who deep down knows the fate of her daughter. Lang. “features the despair of a mother whose little girl does not come home from school” (Kracauer 1997 p122).
Chiaroscuro is one of the most prominent features of expressionist cinema. In ‘M’ there is a stark visual contrast between light and shadow, in which forces, shapes and tonalities clash. Lang.’s chiaroscuro has produced some poignant images. A classic, perfect example of German expressionism is when the shadow of the murderer appears on the reward poster above the head of Elsie Beckmann, who is bouncing her ball against the poster, which advertises a reward for finding the killer. Elsie Beckmann has no idea of the warning looming above her head. This use of shadow is not purely ornamental it is an effect used to grip the audience, which is hugely successful. The same affect is achieved when the thieves have a conference to discuss what to do about the killer, in this scene an “anonymous, abstract image is created” (Eisner 1986 p 117). Their shadows appear across the screen as they carry out their conversation.
Lang. also creates an indefinite chiaroscuro atmosphere when he uses cigarette smoke floating in the glow of a hanging lamp at the thieves meeting. In this scene the light barely manages to penetrate through the think clouds of smoke, this is also true of the police conference scene in which the smoke gets thicker and thicker distorting the light. As the milieus of the police and the underworld inter-cut, the men participating in these meetings are shown in silhouette accentuating their similarities.
Another example is when the murderer looks into a shop window and his face appears to be framed in the light, which was reflected from the knives displayed there. This lighting effect separates and isolates Hans Beckert from the rest of the world by his inhuman urges. In one on the final scenes when the murderer is finally caught Lang. freezes him by using one single beam of light creating an image reminiscent of a deer caught in the headlights of a car.
The use of objects and space are a very expressionistic feature. In the scene where Elsie is murdered the camera cuts from where Elsie is to where she isn’t using inanimate objects and empty spaces to make her fate more horrifying. When Elsies’ mother is desperately calling her Lang. uses a series of still life shots in succession. These are the empty and rather sinister looking spiral staircase with its’ shadows like prison bars, the empty and dismal courtyard, the attic where the washing hangs, Elsies’ seat at the dinner table, to her ball rolling from the undergrowth and her balloon with its’ string entangled in the telegraph cables. When the moving camera freezes on these objects there is no doubt in anyone’s mind about what has happened to Elsie “inanimate objects stand in for an absent and violently silenced person” (Kaes 2000 p 13).
Another feature, which is considered to be expressionist, is the tendency towards abstraction and essentialisation. The expressionist tends to place more importance on mental images than on real things; this method provides full emotional impact without sickening the audience. We hear the murderer talking to Elsie Beckmann and buying her a balloon to win her confidence. In the next scene we see Elsie’s ball roll into the frame and her balloon caught in the telegraph cables. Although we do not witness Elsie’s murder “we have no doubt about Elsie’s fate” (Kaes 2000 pp 13-14).
Expressionist film also has a tendency towards duality. Very often there is a character that appears harmless but actually has a more morbid counterpart much like “the creepily pitiable child murderer in ‘M’ (Elsaesser 2000 p 19). The murderer in ‘M’ is a seemingly inconspicuous man and so that he can be recognised he must be branded with the chalk sign of the letter m on his shoulder. He has a child like innocence and vulnerability, which is combined with his compulsion to murder, which creates a character who is worryingly human.
There are a number of double images or double reflections in ‘M’, which depict a dark side, the disorder of society and the murderous impulses of Hans Beckert. In an early scene in the film we see the murderer looking at his reflection in a mirror attempting to seek out the madman that lives within him. In one scene we see him looking in a shop window calmly eating an apple when he sees a young girls reflection in the shop window, he is suddenly mesmerised and his eyes begin to bulge and he begins to break out in a sweat. This shows Hans Beckerts’ split personality in ‘M’. In this same scene he sees his own reflection, here the normal man on the street becomes a menacing reflection of himself. Later, the murderer sees himself in another mirror image in which he discovers he has been found out when he sees the letter m on his back. Just as the audience begins to feel some kind of pity and sympathy for the killer his darker side is shown in the reflected images.
The stylisation of the set and acting can be identified with expressionism. In expressionist cinema there is a predilection for filming in the studio as opposed to the street and expressionism is known for the use of eccentric sets. In ‘M’ when the police raid the allotment gardens “the pictorial composition is emphasised” (Eisner 1986 p116). In the most famous German expressionist film ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ the sets are extremely artificial and designed specifically to look that way. Some of the acting in ‘M’ is highly gesticulated particularly in the scene where the bald man is having dinner in a club and is accused of having an interest in young girls. In this scene the acting is very stylised and slightly exaggerated creating a comedic effect.
The photography style used in ‘M’ is extremely expressionistic. Lang. uses odd camera angles to create a hypnotic and nightmarish world. In the very first scene, we see the children are playing a game of elimination, in which the next child out is essentially the next child to be murdered. In this scene the camera hovers above not singling out any of the children by using a close up shot, it simply records the process of elimination in this scene the camera separates the mothers from their children with walls, closed doors and railings. The camera moves unevenly attempting to draw attention to itself. The camera then cuts to the staircase where it comments and investigates the pregnant woman who is coming up the stairs.
When Elsie is murdered the camera freezes on Elsies’ empty chair, this shot was taken from above in true expressionist style. Another example is when the girl on the street asked a man for the time and the public immediately views him with suspicion. Lang. makes excellent use of camera angles to show the persecution of this man; he is shot from a high angle and his accusers from a low angle accentuating the way they tower over him.
Fritz Langs. ‘M’ is a “masterpiece of low keyed Expressionism” (www.nyfavideo.com) Although ‘M’ contains some of the key features of the expressionist movement it is not considered as one of the main films of the movement “only a small number of German films can be described as thoroughgoing expressionist works” (www.courses.fas.harvard.edu) Fritz Langs. ‘M’ is most certainly influenced by expressionism. The film evokes a sense of doom and despair and features the paranoid pathology of the individual who has no control over his actions. This is a typical topic of expressionist cinema. Hans Berkert is a man who is ” possessed of some demon that has driven him beyond the borders of ordinary human behaviour” (Eisner 1986 p111) and as a result he is dehumanised by society in his final scene. Even though it is clear that his problems are psychological and cannot be controlled.
The most conscious effort of expressionism being adapted for German cinema was for ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1920) by Robert Wiene. The film was made to look alien and unreal and followed a doctor who committed murder through a monster whose will he controlled.
Expressionism delves into the landscape of an unbalanced mind. In ‘M’ the topic is focused on split personality, which is one of the themes more commonly associated with nineteenth century romanticism. It has been suggested that the sequence at the beggars exchange also contained elements of romanticism. Expressionism uses high angle shots to record states of fear, doubt and anxiety thus creating a frighteningly influenced world.
The common features of expressionism were influential in the making of Fritz Langs’ ‘M’. Some suggest that “there’s no movie that’s more German , Expressionist or noir than Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ (Morris 2000 p1).However, by many ‘M’ is not considered to be one of the landmark films of the era.