ET8: Opening Sequence of ‘M’: Close Analysis

This movie according to most people in the film industry is arguably the Granddaddy of all serial killer movies. It probably is the predecessor to movies like ‘Psycho’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs’. Well I certainly have to agree with that statement. In ‘M’, Fritz Lang manages to depict a seemingly normal guy who kills impulsively and what drives him to do such horrible things. What makes it a great movie is that he does it in a way most of his successors(I think) fail to do.  Enough said, I want to get up-close, and analyse the opening sequence of this movie to understand what makes ‘M’ a masterpiece thriller.

The opening scene starts with a chant from a kid, we don’t see the kid, just a black screen for awhile before we see a group of kids in a circle with one kid in the middle. Lang uses the fade-in technique to bring us into this scene which is brilliant because he doesn’t tell us anything about the environment of the film or where the kids are. All he does is show us this scene of a group of kids in a clock-like circle which is indirectly explaining to us what the movie is basically about through the disturbing chant that the kid in the middle is repeating “Just you wait a little while, the nasty man in black will come, with his little chopper, he will chop you up!”. Interestingly enough, this chant was an actual chant of the time, “the black man” was referring to the German serial killer Fritz Haarmann but the entire movie is loosely based on Peter Kurten who’s nicknamed “Monster of Dusseldorf. Lang also uses the bird’s eye view angle which to me, gives us a sense of “something bad is going to happen” to these kids. Then he pans the camera to the left and tilt it upwards to show us what we want to know, “where are the children at?”. A housing compound. A safe place, but as  we hear the lady shouting on the balcony above telling them to stop singing that awful song, , we can’t help but feel that there was a terrible event that happened not long ago. I love the dark humor that Lang puts into this scene, the kid stops chanting, waits for the lady to walk past, then, continues to sing again.

This whole opening scene is the first plot point that tells us a small story of tragedy. One thing I’d like to point out is the recurring motif in the whole opening sequence which is a circle. We see it first in this opening scene in the shot with the children in a circle. The next scene starts with the lady carrying the basket filled with clothes up the stairs to pass it to Elsie Beckmann’s mother. This is the first time we see the staircase which is repeatedly shown over the course of this sequence. The recurring motif of a circle is again shown in this scene as the clock’s alarm goes off. After seeing the smile on the mother’s face, immediately we see a school, and the bell goes off. What I noticed about this is that the bell is in a different way similar to the clock except the rooster’s sound is replaced with the car horns. Which then goes away as the next shot is juxtaposed with the mother tasting something she cooked.

This is a way, instead of using music, Lang uses the continuity of sound to connect shots with each other. So basically using the diagetic sounds as the background music. Lang edited sound as if he was editing the visuals.

What we see next is some great editing of both Elsie Beckmann and her mother being shown at the same time in two different places. As Elsie bounces her ball and walks along the sidewalk we see a lot of shadows of people walking by until she reaches a pole and bounces the ball of the pole that has a wanted poster on it. As we read what is written, Fritz Lang uses a very expressionistic technique by using a shadow to show us who is talking to Elsie Beckmann. What’s interesting is that we know immediately that the person talking to Elsie is the killer because we can see his shadow on the wanted poster, on the wall. One very important key aspect to this scene is the lighting and cinematography. The way the murderer’s shadow and the ball bouncing off the wall as if it was hitting him lets us in on what is going to happen next. Then how the shadow lowers himself as he talks to Elsie. The scene then goes back to what the mother is doing, but now she looks a bit more worried and she looks at the clock. Again with the circle motif repeated a lot through the course of this opening sequence. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the shadow on the clock is very clear, stressing that Elsie is late.

The sound in this opening sequence is also very important because as you have noticed there is not a single non-diagetic sound in the whole movie. This makes the diagetic sound very important in assessing a situation.

Continuing to the next scene, this is the first time we here a tune and it is the only tune we will hear. Its the murderers whistle and the very thing that gets him caught in the end. Then Lang sets up a parallel action sequence by intercutting shots of the murderer with the young girl’s mother. The culmination of the scenes relies wholly on sound for its continuity. The mother calls out for her child. Each time she calls for Elsie, we see a different visual; out of the window of home, down the stairs, out into the yard where the laundry dries, to the dinner table where Elsie would sit and finally to the best part of this entire sequence, the shot with Elsie’s ball rolling out of the trees area and to a balloon stuck in a telephone line.

With each shot, cries became more distant. For the last two shots, the mother’s cries are no more  than faint echo.

In this sequence, the primary continuity comes from the soundtrack. The mother’s cries unify all the various shots, and the sense of distance implied by tone of the call suggests that Elsie is now lost to her mother.

This scene to me is the climax of the sequence as the shot fades out into darkness.

After that, this whole society goes off balance as we here the sound of newspaper-boys shouting “Extra! Extra!” everyone starts rushing in to see the latest news and finds out the horrible ending to Elsie Beckmann’s life. All this expressionism is used by Lang to create the feeling of drama in the viewers. The crowds in this scene is also very important to convey drama. Because before this, everyone went about living their own life without caring about the killings, but after Elsie’s death, which was a girl from their community, everyone were terrified that something like this could happen to their own child.

mise-en-scene of this sequence tells us a lot about what type of society the film takes place in. The uniform clothing- Elsie Beckmann’s school uniform, the policemen and the postman. The sound of bells and horns. The expressions on people’s faces. All of which explains a very structured and plain society which is thrown off equilibrium by Elsie Beckmann’s murder.

In the final scenes we see the murderer writing a letter to the newspaper informing them that he doesn’t plan on stopping his immoral acts. We don’t see his face, all we here is the whistling that we recognize. Its amazing that Lang never showed us the murderer nor the murder, he gave us clues for us to think for ourselves. The ball, the balloon and the tune. Simple but brilliant.

Then we see the same technique which Lang used earlier for continuity; as one person read to the crowd what happened to Elsie, the shot goes straight to whom I assumed to be a high-ranking police officer reading the newspaper to his colleagues about the murder of Elsie Beckmann. He doesn’t change the voice of the speaker, just the shot.

The final recurring motif of a circle which was the round-table the group of officers were sitting in. This is a very clear symmetry to the opening sequence which is the kids in a circle at the start  and the officers in a round-table at the end.