Expressionist Style in Fritz Lang's M: A City Searches for a Murderer and The Woman in the Window

Essay, 2010

11 Pages, Grade: Sehr Gut


Expressionist Style Fritz Lang's films are influenced by German Expressionism, which originated in Germany in 1919 and ended in 1930. Extreme stylised mise-en-scène is employed to make the formal organisation of the films obvious (Cook 1999, p. 67). The main concern of German Expressionist films is to create a phantasy world, which is in stark contrast to the real world in order to reflect upon social grievances and chasms:

Expressionism [...] is a reaction against the atom-splitting of Impressionism, which reflects the iridescent ambiguities, disquieting diversity, and ephemeral hues of nature. At the same time Expressionism sets itself against Naturalism with its mania for recording mere facts, and its paltry aim of photographing nature or daily life. The world is there for all to see; it would be absurd to reproduce it purely and simply as it is. (Eisner 1969, p. 10)

This is especially evident in Fritz Lang's revolutionary filming technique as the employed shot types and angles enhance angst and paranoia in the spectator. M and The Woman in the Window are also influenced by so-called 'Kammerspiel'-films of the 1920s, through which a new psychological realism emerged. The introduction of sound made it possible for Lang to represent the individual psyche through the character's speech.

Fritz Lang uses universal symbols as a bridge between the character's inner state and the outer world. This also derives from German Expressionism, which aims to discuss low-life subject matters. In M, symbols are used to add further layers of meaning to the film and to foreshadow its plot, whereas in The Woman in the Window they mainly function as symbols of masculinity.

In this essay, the influence of German Expressionism on Fritz Lang's films is discussed by closely analysing and explaining key scenes. It aims to show how the auteur uses key features of this movement to depict the dark chasms ofhuman society.

Fritz Lang's revolutionary filming technique has its roots in German Expressionism, which experimented with new ideas and artistic styles. The applied shot types in Mand The Woman in the Window enhance paranoia and angst in the viewer and, thereby, reflect the inner state of the characters. In the beginning of the first film, a high-angle shot is employed, which gives the spectator the possibility to see the whole scene without participating in it and, therefore, urges the viewer's scopophilia - where “looking itself is a source of pleasure” (Mulvey 1975, p. 7):

The very first shot [of M\ not only sets up between on screen and off screen sound, it also establishes the roving and exterior point of view of this film. In one shot we view both the children and the woman, but both of them from pronounced angles: the children from above, the woman from below. The camera does not align itself with any character. Further, it has a will of its own, directing us away from the action and making us imagine events off screen through sound cues. (Gunning 2000, p. 166)

This is also true for the eye-matching shot, which is especially prominent in M. It allows the viewer to be involved in key scenes of the film, but - unlike the high-angle shot alone - a certain tension is created, which makes the spectator feel uncomfortable. When the old man is suspected by the tall man to be the murderer, their eyes match; here, the camera angles quickly shift from low- to high-angle and vice versa, further enhancing the anxiety by always being in the position of one of these characters. The eye-match shot is also availed in the choke-scene in The Woman in the Window, when Richard Wanley directly looks into Alice Reed's eyes. This yields the urge in the spectator to help Wanley, which givesjustification to his later killing of Reed's lover.

The Woman in the Window and Mare also influenced by so-called 'Kammerspiel' films, which depict certain techniques from German chamber play theatre in order to create a new psychological realism. This way of filmmaking focuses on the character's psychology, which is evident in the depiction of Hans Beckert's paedophile drove in the last scene of M, thereby directly alluding to Rainer Maria Rilke's expressionistic novel The Notebooks ofMalte Laurids Brigge. Beckert states in his final monologue that the voices in his head want him to commit these crimes, finishing his defence with “Who knows what it's like to be me?”. This makes the spectator reflect upon ones own subconscious wishes and desires and, thereby, placing oneself in the role of Beckert. In M, the categories of men and monster are disturbed (Powrie and Stilwell 2006, p. 80). Beckert is still presented as a human, wandering through the streets while whistling his tune, even though he is a murderer. In his self-defence, the protagonist draws a comparison between himself and the crowd of criminals. Thus, he sets himself apart from them: they act out of their own will, while he has to commit these murders on compulsion.

The same technique is employed in the last scene of The Woman in the Window, when Richard Wanley wakes up from his dream. This dream depicts his subconscious desire of real- life murder, which is suppressed by social constrains and rules. However, the fact that Wanley killed Reed's lover only in a dream leaves the spectator with no clear end. The end of the film, thus, can be put into the framework of Brechtian epic theatre - a theatrical theory emerging in Germany in the early twentieth century; its main goal is to make the audience aware that they are watching a play.

The introduction of sound made it possible for the individual psyche to be represented through the character's speech. This is recognisable in the conversation between the criminals, which isjuxtaposed with the discussion between the policemen. The crime boss Schränker, therefore, functions as Inspector Lohmann's doppelgänger. Another revolutionary innovation due to the introduction of sound is Beckert's leitmotif whistle of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, a piece of orchestral music from Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt. In the song, “The Christian's son has bewitched / The Mountain King's fairest daughter!” (Levine 1974, p. 88) and shall be punished, tortured, and killed. This refers to Beckert's urge to kidnap and kill girls and makes the spectator know that he commits a crimejust by hearing him whistling off-screen. As Welsch (2000, p. 56) points out, Lang uses dialogue asynchronously, in one instance to withhold information about a speaker's identity, in another to illustrate a striking absence (a mother's voice calling for her lost child). He used sound effects sparingly bit with thrilling precision: a breathy, off-key whistle alerts a blind man that a murderer is nearby; the trapped man scratches at a door, trying to claw his way to freedom. As these examples illustrate, Lang's use of sound is pointed, not atmospheric; every sound has a particular, specific, and limited function.

Sound in Malso functions to extend the screen space to an off-screen space. By employing this technique, Lang consciously imprints the visible screen with the voice or sound from outside the frame (cf. Gunning 2000, p. 165).

In The Woman in the Window, the plan to camouflage the murder is presented without any emotions, which underlines the deep fringes grounded in every human: “[...] Lang also worked through issues of duplicity and thwarted desire. [The Woman in the Window] carefully constructs the dialogue track, as characters trap themselves through slips of the tongue and wishes spoken aloud that come all too true” (Welsch 2000, p. 58). Only by employing dialogues Lang was able to make the spectator realise that murder can occur in every social class.


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Expressionist Style in Fritz Lang's M: A City Searches for a Murderer and The Woman in the Window
University of Birmingham  (School of English)
Film: Narrative, Meaning and Representation
Sehr Gut
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ISBN (Book)
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This is a well written, excellently presented, carefully researched and intelligent essay, demonstrating a high level of sophistication and knowledge on the subject of German Expressionism in the films of Fritz Lang. The grasp of aesthetic issues and ability to write about this cogently is very impressive.
expressionist, style, fritz, lang, city, searches, murderer, woman, window, sehr
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Regina Seiwald (Author), 2010, Expressionist Style in Fritz Lang's M: A City Searches for a Murderer and The Woman in the Window, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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