M: The Telltale Whistle

In today’s cinematic landscape, we have attached sound to some great (or not so great) pieces of film: the opening horns of the Star Wars scrolling text, the two-note frenzy that is Jaws, and even the airy whispers before Jason Vorhees takes his next victim. But before any of these came to the light, there was a man disturbed enough to create his own twisted theme. In 1931’s M by Fritz Lang, the infamous killer Hans Beckert whistles the classic song “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, composed by Edvard Grieg, as a sort of identifier to the audience that something terrible – albeit offscreen –  is soon to happen. It reinforced the seeming casual, sing-songy facade of the killer in juxtaposition with the violent, sinister nature that lurked underneath. At first, the whistling may have appeared as a one-off, but through repetition, its true purpose as a calling card for death is revealed. What is occurring is referred to as a sound motif; in other words, a certain short piece of sound or music is repeated with significance. The idea of motif can also apply in a visual sense with repeated shots or images. A reason why M is considered so influential is Lang’s innovative use of film elements, in this case being sound. An even more interesting point to consider is that the first feature film with sound had been released only 4 years earlier (1927’s The Jazz Singer by Alan Crosland). Fritz Lang was able to utilize sound as a major piece of the story; he was able to associate a song that many had enjoyed before and attach it to a disturbing pedophilic murderer. Personally, after seeing the film, I could never hear the song with same innocence that I once did.

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One thought on “M: The Telltale Whistle

  1. Chris,

    This is a nicely-focused and well-informed post on Fritz Lang’s use of sound in M. As you point out, and as we’ll discuss in class today, Lang innovated several aesthetic practices in this early sound film, particularly the sound motif. Lang in a sense “trains” his audience to feel anxiety when we hear Beckert whistle Grieg’s famous tune. He also experiments with silence, recognizing that sometimes the lack of sound is more powerful than a score or the use of diegetic sounds. This is perhaps most evident at the end of the prologue–when Elsie is abducted–and during the raid scene. We are definitely going to discuss these issues today, so I hope you share your perspectives!

    My only critique of the post is that it feels a little under-developed. (Remember, posts should be at least 300 words to receive full credit.) For example, I’d like to see you analyze in more detail a scene or two where we see Lang’s sound techniques at work.

    Nevertheless, solid first post,
    MT

    Like

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