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Guest Richard Edwards

Daily Dose #1: The Nasty Man in Black (The Opening Scene of Fritz Lang's M)

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Guest fred

a feeling of impending doom from the very first shoot . We know something bad is going to happen soon.

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The way Lang stages the home scene with the mother looking at the clock and getting lunch ready for her child, you know that the child will never make it back home.

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Guest Lindsey Burns

As an avid admirer of classic cinema, I know of Fritz Lang and his place in the pantheon of film giants, but I confess I have never seen this seminal film.  And what a wealth of innovative content it is. Whole essays could and no doubt have been written about it, but here’s my “short” take on some of its film noir hallmarks as I understand them… so far (key words underlined):

 

Against a black screen, a child’s voice is heard, chanting in a flat, sing-song tone.  For German-speaking viewers, the jarring words of the verse would immediately signal alarm. Even when the words cannot be understood, the repetitive, joyless tone of the rhyme is unsettling. This is not a jolly game.  Many decades later, Roman Polanski would employ this powerful technique at the beginning of “Rosemary’s Baby,” with its eerie, subtly menacing lullaby. This layering of normalcy and menace is powerfully disorienting.

 

The first shot, positioned high above the children, reveals a group of children who encircle the chanting girl. Only the girl appears animated and gleeful; the others are frozen, enthralled by her frightening and relentless rhyme. One child seems on the verge of turning away but cannot.

By employing this camera angle, Lang reduces their already small stature and exaggerates the vulnerability of children. This sense of vulnerability is further heightened as the camera pans up to reveal the close, featureless walls around the children. It is the children’s circle doubled—an environment that instills  anxiety, as there is no apparent escape.

 

As the camera continues to pan up, a staircase is revealed—empty at first until a woman appears, struggling with an outsized basket of laundry.  Only a spindly railing separates the woman from catastrophe.  This staircase imagery was later favored by Alfred Hitchcock, most notably in “Psycho.”  Here, Lang dares the viewer to imagine the children dashing up and down those perilous stairs each day. Again, vulnerability and menace.

 

Lang then adds what appears, in this brief intro, to be a core theme of the film: the danger of complacency. Though a killer of children is on the loose, the “laundry lady” merely reprimands the child for the annoying rhyme but is content to leave the children on their own. Her neighbor, happily at work in her tidy kitchen, dismisses the situation with the illogical rationale, “As long as we can hear them, we know they are still there.” In making the cuckoo clock and the tower bells ring at the same time, Lang reinforces the woman’s misplaced priorities. Her clock is perfectly synchronized, but she mindlessly allows her child to walk home alone from school while a maniac trolls for victims.  

This lapse is underscored when Lang cuts to the scene of parents waiting in front of the school, while the oblivious woman’s child is nearly hit by a speeding car.  It is significant that no passerby attempts to help the child, save the tardy policeman. In seconds, Lang has expanded the commentary to society at large. He asks us, “Who is minding the store?”

 

In the last few frames of this clip, Lang takes the gloves off.  He brings innocence and evil face to face, both literally and figuratively. As the child’s bouncing ball thumps against a public notice warning of the kidnapper /killer, the shadow of a man appears directly over the notice. He speaks to the child in a flat, unremarkable tone.  Here is the ordinariness, the inevitability of evil.

 

Lang rightly sees complacency and people’s need to believe in the illusion of normalcy, even as evil rages and devours. To those more familiar with Fritz Lang’s work, I’m sure I am stating the obvious: that this film, released in 1931, is Lang’s commentary on the dangerous rise of the Nazis and history’s merciless executioner, Adolf Hitler.  The opening scene of the children is Lang’s cannily crafted miniature of 1930s Germany:  the confident, charismatic figure at the center of a mesmerized society hungry for leadership and deaf to the dire promise of impending doom. Especially prescient is Lang’s foreshadowing of the coming Holocaust in the figure at the center of the group: the chanting child. As she smugly eliminates child after child with a point of her finger, it is impossible not to envision the Nazi guard relegating life or death with the flick of a whip.  

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I've only watched part of the film but wonder if this is even noir. It feels more like plain horror, as a genre.

 

Horror and noir, especially in the early days, have a lot of similarities in style. This being a very early example of the genre, it's not specifically the same type of film as, say The Maltese Falcon. But stylistically it is firmly within the genre.

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Guest RickD

Although noir films are associated with the darkness of night, the opening sequence of M demonstrates that even in a world filled with daylight and populated by adults, children are not safe from predators. What could possibly create a greater feeling of dread?

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Guest Rita

Presence of Fear.  I feel the director was trying to stir fear into the audience with his opening

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Guest I am a camera

White - the color of the laundry, the figurines in the apartment behind the washerwoman, etc., is counterbalanced against black - shadows, the news of child killings in the poster, the silhouette of the man in black, etc. The adults (all women - no men are present nor is their presence implied) are inside, protected but powerless.  The children are all outside - free to play and interact in a separate community from the adults.  But, they are vulnerable, subject to the carnage that they proclaim in their song.  The possibility of destruction of human life governs both worlds.  The "inside" adults worry about how destruction will come.  The "outside" children celebrate it in song and their game, which is both a liturgy of the power of chaos and a foreshadowing of the next chaotic event.  The lone "outside" girl has a ball, too.  Instead of a symbolic or liturgical act, the girl, the ball, and the motion and freedom it embodies leads her straight to the killer.  The "inside" women perform actions that seem to affirm life: cooking, setting the supper table, washing and cleaning clothes.  There is a resignation in their actions that suggests that they too lack life in some important way.  The tension comes from the interplay of shadow and light, the foreshadowing of the presence of the killer, and the juxtaposition of black and white objects.  But a deeper tension comes from the question that the opening scene sets before the audience:  what can bring life to the protected but limited inner world of confining lines and angles, as well as the free but chaotic outer world of broken circles and spheres that bounce and roll where they will,like the planet itself, taking us with them toward death.

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Guest Charlanque

The opening scene is intensely creepy. It puts you right in the mood for what is to come. The silence, the innocence and you as a viewer just knowing that something is about to happen. The shadow of the man about to lure the child away, and his unreal way of speaking, makes it even creepier, but is typical for film noir. You don't always see everything. The power of suggestion is often much stronger than just plain showing you what happens.

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Guest Margaret L. Schwartz

I have never seen “M,” being somewhat of a neophyte on the subject of Film Noir. 

 

I think perhaps the reason the film uses only one letter in its title “M,” which I believe stands for murderer (mörder), is to let the viewer know that more is coming. “M” will be fully realized as “Murderer (Morder)” by the end.

 

My first impression when seeing the children playing their sing-song game, obviously oblivious to the lyrics therein, was to think of Hansel and Gretel walking unknowingly into The Witch’s sweet house trap.  Children unaware of a forthcoming evil.  ~ Margaret 

 

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Guest Cliff Grant

The opening scene of Fritz Lang's M didn't unsettle me at first. The children playing the game that started the scene reminded me of Grimms' fairy tales. The children aren't even aware of the import of their words. But the first adult character, the woman carrying her washing to, it seems, a neighbor washerwoman is upset by the children's game. Her admonishment to them begins the littlest bit of tension. As soon as she's gone from the balcony, the children start their game again, oblivious to the danger that the adults are aware of and seem powerless to do anything about.

 

The children and the two women are in enclosed, cramped settings. None of these characters has much room, and they seem restricted in their actions.

 

The cuckoo clock in the washerwoman's apartment seemed charming to me, but the next sound the viewer hears is the tolling of the bell (I'm assuming it's a church bell). It's loud and insistent -- another uptick in tension.

 

When the film moves outside, to the adults waiting for the schoolchildren at the school's entrance, the sounds seem louder. When the little schoolgirl steps out in the street and a driver honks the car horn, the sound is much louder (even grated on my nerves!).

 

We seem to alternate between felling safe and feeling threatened:

The children playing (safe).

The woman admonishing them (threatened).

The conversation in the washerwoman's apartment (safe). The adults waiting for the schoolchildren (safe again).

The schoolgirl stepping out into traffic (threatened).

The police officer right there to help her (safe).

The schoolgirl playing ball against the notice in German about the reward for information about the murderer (threatened).

And, of course, the shadow of the man in the hat appearing over the words on the reward poster -- more threatening still!

 

For me, this alternation made the building tension that much more effective.

The scene is authentic, it truly captures the time period, the scenes flow in such a way that you can almost tell what follows next, the song the little girl was singing was somewhat eerie building anticipation for impending doom, as the scenes progress we come to Elsie Beckmann who is obviously the next victim, when the ball stops bouncing we can infer that she is going to be one of the victims.

The pace of this particular clip was slow and deliberate allowing the viewer to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

 

On a side note just looking at the clip really shows how much times have changed, nowadays there is no way you could allow children of that tender age to play unattended without parental supervision.

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Guest Lisa D

One of the ways Lang builds tension is to go back and forth between the mother preparing for her child to come home from school and what is happening with the child. He creates not just tension, but dread.

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Guest Kai-Ting Chan

In the opening scene of M, the camera views down the children, which I think immediately creates a preying, dominating feeling over them. Moreover, there is a sense of creepy quietness throughout the opening. We can't hear other children's laughters besides the singing voice of the little girl, and we can only hear the ball bouncing when another girl walks back from the school. The happiness and positiveness seem to die out from the city way before the horror of the murderer arrives. What makes this movie great is that it does not need to say how scary the murderer is or how horrify the town people are. M shows it all in the opening 5 minutes! 

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Foreboding....a rubber band that slowly starts to twist as we see the children and listen to the song..the length of the shot of the mother....seeing the young girl bouncing the ball down the street...the rubber band twists tighter...we see her bouncing the ball against the wanted poster...rubber band tighter...then..the shadow....and the voice...we no longer feel the tight rubber band...but we discover our heart racing 5 times its normal tempo...our mouth is dry.   Lang is a Master of setting up the mood...the fear....foreboding for me is the word.

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Marianne mentioned alienation above, and that's an element that really stood out for me.  In several scenes, there are physical barriers between the audience and the action: the balcony railing, the stair rail, and the furniture in the apartment.  There's a repeating pattern of vertical bars even echoed in the backs of the chairs and the shadows on the wall that I think adds to the claustrophobic, enclosed feel of the opening sequence.  We also view characters from an alienated, excluded perspective: above the circle of children, outside and behind the semi-circle of parents, and the interaction between the Scary Man and Elsie even takes place off-camera.  

 

The result of this exclusion is to make the viewer feel removed from the action, a helpless observer.  It's highly unsettling.

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The tone is set right away in this clip that this will be a dark story.  Kids are innocently singing about a killer, playing as only they know how.  The feeling I most associated with this clip was a sense of hopelessness.  The adult women want to protect the children from the child murderer but they also have to continue working in order to provide for their families.  They can't be with the children every second of the day, but as the one woman points out, if they can hear the children, they are safe for that moment.  It may have been drilled into their heads to look both ways when crossing the street and to not talk to strangers, but children don't always do what they're told and don't understand the ramifications of straying from these guidelines set forth by their parents.  Sometimes, parents can only hope that they've taught their children enough to survive on a daily basis.  

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Guest Boris Z

The sets staged by german expressionist style.

Children singing, macabre words.

Weary women, domestic cores. Hints on lurking fear.

Traffic danger in passing the street. Comforting police.

Ball play changes in to possible horror in a two step sequence.

For me more horror movie than noir up to this point.

Traces of noir feeling because I want to? :-)

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Agreed. And look at how long Lang holds shots. He's taking his time, and allowing an eternal 16 seconds to pass with no visible action or human beings on screen. He's priming us to wait, and to expect something.

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Guest Miguel Rodriguez

Ah, glad to see this in the messageboard. It seems a common reaction on Twitter is that the song the kids are singing is an immediately dark message, but anyone who has worked with children know that this kind of demystifying of the macabre through songs and games is a natural thing for kids to do.

 

The overhead shot of the children singing and playing puts us, as the audience, in the perspective of a watching adult--similarly to how the woman sees them from the floor above. When we get her reaction, especially after she converses with another adult and the song is related to actual events that are scaring everybody, the tension gets turned up a notch. I don't get dread from the song itself, but rather I get the message that these kids are so innocent they even turn such terror into a game. 

 

By the end of the opening seen, we see that it is that very innocence that makes them vulnerable--too trusting--apt to talk to strangers. 

 

Lang's use of the man in shadow at the end of the clip does a number of things. First, it does become a Noir convention in later years to use shadow. It mystifies elements of the film and creates tension. What is scary is what is unknown, and shadow is very effective at creating that feeling. That being said, though, it is also interesting that the audience sees shadows, but that is presumably not what the little girl is seeing. The audience's point of view is put in a contrast with the little girl's point of view. We connect various clues--like the wanted poster--and become terrified. The little girl just sees a person asking about her ball. It combines to make everything very tragic. 

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"As long as we can hear 'em singing, at least we know they're still there." 

This sentence not only is the one that best conveys the mood that Fritz Lang is trying to create in the opening scene of M - the imminent danger around us in our everyday lives, the shadows of evil lurking our children's songs -, but it also is a statement about cinema itself, concerning one of the most important paradoxes (or powers) of film aesthetics: how to show what is invisible, or how the invisible can have an impact on what is visible in the screen?

This opening scene is all about the construction of the off-screen space, that privileged dimension of the development of tension so particular to the film-noir movie genre. It's is curious that M does not open with any of the scenic or dramatic elements that usually open a film-noir movie (for example, a loner in a dark and deserted town, late at night, or in a manly environment of vice, crime and corruption), but it rather opens in daylight, in a crowded open space, with children playing and women doing the housework. Yet, Lang employs in this brief sequence several of the cinematic strategies that will later define this movie genre, especially in what concerns the treatment of the off-screen space by the use of shadow and sound effects: not the children's song that overtly comments and announces the diegesis, as the sentence mentioned above also does, but also the repetitive sound effects (the clock and the bouncing of the ball) that instill tension in the image, and the sentences exchanged by the young girl off-screen and "the shadow" on the image. 

And what a bitter irony is here being prepared! As the woman says, it is when we stop hearing that we should be afraid - which means that the absence of a specific sound is even more threatening that the presence of an evident sound such as a scream -, and I can't stop thinking of the mastery of Lang literally giving form to the invisible and showing it on a poster announcing the search of the man whose shadow is projected on it.

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Guest Guest

There are so many great thoughts here- already I can see this is going to be an insightful course. For me, I think the sense that the tension was building between the culture of yesterday and the culture of today was intriguing. I was unsettled from the first image, but I think I was most disturbed by the young lady walking along alone- this was where the dramatic foreboding took hold. I can't imagine a girl that small walking alone (today's culture), and when the man speaks to her, it is instinctual now to fear (though I'm not sure that was so then, at least not in the same way).

 

The other thing that stands out is the beauty of the black and white film itself, and its ability to create a different emotional investment than color film. The sharp contrasts with shadows and light (the clock for instance making a distinctive shadow on the wall behind it) stand out in a way that would be impossible if the film were in color. 

 

I, too, like the comparison between safety and danger. These elements are key to the interpretation here, I believe. 

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Guest Diane Rachel

k

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  1. The song the children sing does give us a premonition that something eerie will happen, specifically something to do w/ being killed off and taken out of the game, the camera angle makes us loom over the children like Death Himself

 

The lady w/ the basket looks at them w/ a disturbed expression, she is on edge, she already has enough stress in her life from other factors, we look at her from an upwards angle, maybe to make it seem like someone looking up meekly after being brought down to their knees from fear.

 

The fact the children keep on singing despite her shushing notes that the stress factors are things they are too young t fully comprehend. 

 

The lady goes up the stairs w/ much effort, she is tired from all that is going on. Maybe her holding the heavy basket is a visual representation of her being weighed down but having to keep moving forward anyway.

 

The lady opens the door and w/ talking to her friend lady#2 we are given necessary information for us to comprehend the scene: these two ladies are probably mothers, a murderer is on the loose, his prey is probably children. 

 

We look into the home of the second lady, knowing such an intimate part of her life means what is about to happen is important for us to know as we carry on in the story. Her life is important to us, but she does not know it. She is unsuspecting and carries on chores as business is usual (tho her scrubbing could be an outlet of frustration, even if there is frustration present she is trying to keep cool)

 

The clocks start ringing, getting more ominous with each ring, is time running out? The cars honking as they are on their busy way tell us that yes, time is running out and it is going to fast.

 

The unsuspecting child tries to cross the road, she steps back to not let run out by a car (being driven by an adult), she puts her faith in the police man (an adult) which we cannot help but suspect now that we know a murderer is on the loose. We look down at her, like any tall adult will look down at a child, or maybe this is death again looming over.

 

Lady #2 is setting a table for two, she is unsuspecting or in denial that anything bad could happen to her life soon. She smiles as she looks at the table where she presumed she'le have a meal w/ a loved one.We look at her at the angle of a person standing, we are merely helpless spectators to what will happen to her.

 

The child walks on peacefully, it's business as usual, she bounces her ball against a sign telling us more about the murderer, she truly does not understand the seriousness of the situation. 

 

The repetitive bouncing of the ball mimics the repetitive noises of the clock and the children's singing at the beginning, the type of repetition that gets on one's nerves. 

 

We thank her for giving us time to read the sign but we also worry that she should be getting on her way now. Just as we think that a figure shows up on the very sign, he is our murderer, we cannot see his face. oh no! he invited her out, she is doomed.

 

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"As long as we can hear 'em singing, at least we know they're still there." 

This sentence not only is the one that best conveys the mood that Fritz Lang is trying to create in the opening scene of M - the imminent danger around us in our everyday lives, the shadows of evil lurking our children's songs -, but it also is a statement about cinema itself, concerning one of the most important paradoxes (or powers) of film aesthetics: how to show what is invisible, or how the invisible can have an impact on what is visible in the screen?

This opening scene is all about the construction of the off-screen space, that privileged dimension of the development of tension so particular to the film-noir movie genre. It's is curious that M does not open with any of the scenic or dramatic elements that usually open a film-noir movie (for example, a loner in a dark and deserted town, late at night, or in a manly environment of vice, crime and corruption), but it rather opens in daylight, in a crowded open space, with children playing and women doing the housework. Yet, Lang employs in this brief sequence several of the cinematic strategies that will later define this movie genre, especially in what concerns the treatment of the off-screen space by the use of shadow and sound effects: not the children's song that overtly comments and announces the diegesis, as the sentence mentioned above also does, but also the repetitive sound effects (the clock and the bouncing of the ball) that instill tension in the image, and the sentences exchanged by the young girl off-screen and "the shadow" on the image. 

And what a bitter irony is here being prepared! As the woman says, it is when we stop hearing that we should be afraid - which means that the absence of a specific sound is even more threatening that the presence of an evident sound such as a scream -, and I can't stop thinking of the mastery of Lang literally giving form to the invisible and showing it on a poster announcing the search of the man whose shadow is projected on it.

Yes I found this moment particularly eerie.  This little song also reminds me of the American "ring around the rosies" about the Black Death...

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That's an interesting observation - I totally missed that but I think it fits with the overall feeling.  What jumped out at me visually was the longer takes and mobile camera, which gave a more suspenseful, stalkerish feeling.  There wasn't a ton of motion in each frame (besides the camera tracking along), usually one specific motion at a time, which seemed to build up the dark, foreboding feeling.

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I have seen "M" already but looking back at the opening, its strange the nature of the little chant the children have about "the man in black", considering the events that have happened in the past from the wanted poster the little girl bounces her ball against (what a great way to establish the murders through no dialogue) It's like to the children, what has happened, possibly to their peers or playmates is something they can't themselves wrap their minds around so they unwittingly turn into a joke, a chant. 

 

The effect of having no background music makes everything that much more tense: like the cuckoo clock and the sound of the bells breaking the silence momentarily. I don't have kids but I imagine it's like a mother listening for those sounds of routine, counting on them to know where her children are even if the nature of the children's song unnerves the mothers. 

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