(Fritz Lang, Germany, 1931)


I would like to propose and explore the concept of the sound event as a way of drawing our attention to, and providing a means of analysing, hitherto largely undiscussed aspects of Fritz Lang's work.

How does sound become an event in his films? Firstly, a particular sound is isolated, featured, subtly highlighted within a scene; often a natural, obvious kind of sound, but one that is used for particular expressive and narrational purposes. Secondly, sound becomes an event by being made an intrinsic part of the action, dynamics and movement of the scene. Sounds cue actions, link actions, unfold actions.

Already in a silent era film such as Spione (1928), Lang was using sound events – whistling kettles, rattling cups, train wheels, gunshots, doors opening – as a way to articulate and link his shots, a cue for cutting. The action of a sound in one space, an unseen or distant space, cues the immediate reaction shot of someone else looking for the source, location and meaning of that sound. Lang's films have often been discussed in Hitchcockian terms as centring on "the look and the gaze", as if it were the character's eyes that cue everything that is important; I'd argue, on the contrary, that sound is often the driving motor, and it regularly complicates the vision of the characters – what they can see, what they think they see, what they expect they are about to see. This interrogation of the characters' vision and hearing alike in turn becomes a question for us as film viewers, ceaselessly caught up in what I have elsewhere called Lang's guess-work (1) – a guess-work which runs according to the three principles suggested by Alain Masson of "intensity, uncertainty, dissimulation" (2).

For the first scene in Lang's first sound film, the opening of M is quite astonishing work – even more so when you consider that Lang was essentially staging everything for direct sound recording, not using post-production layering effects. By my count, there are sixteen separate sound events in this roughly eight-minute scene, a number of them repeated in successive variations. I suggest that you work through the following list as you watch, listen, pause and rewind the scene itself.

Note added 2004: The following analysis was initially performed on the version of M popularly available on video until 1997. There are many significant differences between this abridged version and the restoration carried out in the '90s by the Munich Film Museum, which appears in its best form on the Accent DVD release of 2004. Therefore, I have noted the key differences in italicised notes in relation to this scene. For starters, there are seventeen (not sixteen) separate sound events.

1. The Classical Theme under the credits. The tune from Edvard Greig's Peer Gynt, here used as introductory soundtrack music, will soon become the signature tune whistled by the murderer. Note that the opening scene to follow does not use any other conventional soundtrack score.

The credits of the restored version are far more minimal, and do not use the Greig, only silence. Instead, the first sound event at the end of the credits, absent from the cut version, is a loud gong, which leads into the chant.

2. The Children's Chant. The principle of sound before vision: a fade-in from black shows us the source and setting of the children's chant, led by a little girl. The chant itself, because it is musically serial in nature, functions as a droll joke about the grim reality of serial murder. And, in its stop-start repetition, it creates a special kind of cinematic suspense.

3. The Tracking Camera Movement as a linking device here, rather than a cut. This movement of the camera, and with it the movement of the microphone, creates a drama in relation to sound and space, distance and proximity. Being able to hear someone is an assuring sign of their continuing presence, their very life – as Thierry Kuntzel grasped in his groundbreaking textual analysis of this segment (3). The singing in one spot and the hearing in a nearby spot create a protective, safety zone. Lang thus establishes a system of sound perspective, the dynamics of hearing from near or far.

4. The Washer Woman's Words. Sound is remarked upon, written into the dialogue, becomes a basis for drama and contestation: "Stop singing ... don't you hear me?"

The Accent DVD edition contains complete subtitles for the dialogue – much of this material missing, severely paraphrased or imperfectly translated in the short version.

5. The Chant Resumes. The off-screen resumption of the chant, while the empty shot holds, stokes the slowly mounting tension of the scene.

In the following shot of the woman carrying her load up the stairs, as in many subsequent shots of the mother in her kitchen, much detail of daily, time-consuming work has been excised in the short version – thereby lessening the drawn-out suspense (as well as the social realism).

6. The Doorbell Rings. A common, obvious sound – but it too will become a cue raising the mother's expectation about her daughter's arrival or presence.

7. Again, the Dialogue remarks upon the constant unfolding drama of sound: "As long as we hear them singing, we know they're safe."

8. The Clock. It has an obvious narrative function in the scene, to mark the amount of time passing. But there's more to it, sound-wise. When the clock repeats later, notice how the difference in its sound and tone is dolefully expressive. Note too how the action of the clock sets up the editing, image-sound pattern most characteristic of Lang: a sound from off-screen, then a look by the character, then a shot of the source of that sound.

9. The Bell. This is a breathtaking transition. The domestic sound of the clock is overlaid with the public sound of a town bell. This overlay or aural superimposition enables Lang to leap from one space to another – from the kitchen to the school and street – and also to connect those spaces in a strongly marked fashion.

10. Car Horns. A small detail, but one that Lang obviously staged for the scene's direct sound recording. Car horns signal in their own minor key, imminent danger, a daily threat or menace – especially to children.

11. The Bouncing Ball. Another mundane sound that, in its insistent, atonal repetition, helps to create a chilling suspense.

The digitally cleaned-up sound of the ball, amongst all the crucial noises in the film, is far more palpable and effective on the DVD restoration.

12. Introduction of the Killer. Again, something is introduced, this time a character (played by Peter Lorre), as an off-screen sound. The banality of the murderer's observation, "You have a pretty ball", and the tone of his delivery, suggest something sinister and perverse. Furthermore, his simple question "what is your name?" has (as I have argued elsewhere) a special and profound significance in Lang's films generally.

13. The Footsteps. Again, the footsteps figure dynamically as an off-screen cue (some of the mother's dialogue is also placed off-screen, during the shot of the kids on the stairs). The mother takes the footsteps sound as a sign of her daughter's presence. Note in passing how, both in sound and image, Lang is quite obsessed with signifying something through just a trace of it: a sound signals or stands in for a character; just as later, visually, the ball and balloon will symbolise the girl and her death.

14. Reprise of Classical Theme. Now the Peer Gynt theme ("In the Hall of the Mountain King") is attached, for the first time, to the murderer: we don't yet see his face, and can only identify him through the performance of this sound (which becomes crucial to the overall plot dynamics of the film). Incidentally, Lorre couldn't whistle, so Lang did it for him off-screen.

15. The Second Doorbell Ring. Again, the mother takes this as an announcement or sign of her daughter's arrival; again, her expectation is crushed, her casual, daily, cause-and-effect assumption undermined. Such "chastening" or interrogation of assumption forms a recurring pattern in many Lang films.

Another distinct sound event is missing from the short version: the mother hears, from the street, the cry of a scrap vendor. This precedes her opening of the window.

16. The Mother's Cry. This final sound event is the most elaborate in the formal relationships of image and sound that it articulates, even though it is based merely on the repetition, in varying tones, of a single word: "Elsie". Basically, this series of shots symbolises the girl's death by indicating, in steps or stages, how far Elsie has strayed from the comfort zone of sound set up at the start of the scene. She is too far away, beyond hearing, beyond life. The link between sound (uttered, heard) and lived presence has been cruelly severed. The mother's cry becomes more distant, carries greater echo, as inanimate objects come more and more to fill the image-track, also evacuating life.

In the restored version, the mother's voice disappears altogether from the final three shots of table (over which, the mother's distant cry in the short version is spatially illogical – she is just nearby), grass and telephone wire, which unfold in absolute silence – a far eerier effect of absence. The repetition of the cry in the short version, as with many other sound manipulations and effects, seems to have been added in 1959 in the recut released by producer Seymour Nebenzal.

In the beginning of the next scene, we witness a pure succession of sound events: the newspaper seller's singular cry of "Extra! Extra!" leads to a frantic babble of voices; and then that babble is instantly contrasted with the lone, whistling voice of the killer, in another reprise of the Peer Gynt theme.

This segment is longer and far more complex in the restored version. The opening shot begins in darkness, with the newspaper seller's voice off-screen; as the image appears, his voice grows louder, sharper and faster, in an extremely musicalised way. Within this same shot, there is then an accumulating flurry of bodies and voices – a remarkable example of Lang's concentrated "cellular" form.

These formal devices – sounds that on the one hand build, overlap, connect, grow in a contagion; and then, on the other hand, the striking, contrasting juxtaposition of mass sounds with an isolated sound – are crucial to the larger structures that organise Lang's films as an aesthetic and analytical whole.

MORE Lang: Cloak and Dagger, Secret Beyond the Door ..., Scarlet Street, House by the River

© Adrian Martin February 2000


1. See here. back

2. Alain Masson, "Les Espions: Comment comprendre?", Positif, no. 256 (June 1982), p. 65. back

3. Thierry Kuntzel, "The Film-Work", Enclitic vol 2 no 1 (1978), p. 59. back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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