When M was first released in 1931, the use of sound in feature films was still new. The Jazz Singer, the first feature film with synchronized sound, had only been released in 1927. In the early 1930s, filmmakers were still in the process of figuring out the basics of incorporating this new technology into their films. Many, entranced by the possibility of sound, felt that they ought to chock their films full of music and dialog. Fritz Lang with M, his first ‘talkie’, chose a different approach. Rather than marveling at the technology itself, he used sound, and its counterpart silence, to heighten the aesthetic and dramatic possibilities of cinema. The result was a movie that many film historians consider the first masterpiece of the sound era.

The final scene of M is a good example of the way that Lang seamlessly blends sound and visuals to heighten his story. As the scene opens, the child killer, Hans Beckert [Peter Lorre], has just been captured by a group of criminals hellbent on dispensing their own brand of justice. In this scene, he’s brought before this group of criminals where he will face an extralegal trial.

The scene opens with two men entering the frame and bring Beckert out into the open. He’s dragged out of the shadows where he’s being kept prisoner, and into the light, where he’ll face justice. It’s notable that during this scene, we hear Beckert before we see him as he screams in desperation.

Beckert is dragged into a different room without ceasing his screaming. While his howls gets at his desperation, they also serve another function. The film utilizes the voice to create continuity between images. As the film cuts from one room to another, the sound of Beckert’s pleas remains a constant. As a man opens the door, we hear Beckert’s voice spilling into a new room, giving us a clear idea of the temporal and spatial relationship between images.

Beckert is shoved down the stairs where, back to the camera, he looks up at his captors who loom over him. Just like Beckert, viewers know what the entrance to the room looks like but not what’s behind Beckert. Through this perspective, the film has set the viewer up for the same surprise that he will face when he turns around.

Viewers are momentarily held in suspense as Beckert falls silent upon turning to look at the other side of the room. The film cuts to reveal a room full of people staring silently at Beckert. In complete silence, the camera pans across the room revealing hundreds of people staring. This slow camera movement, combined with complete silence, increases the intensity of the scene. Fritz Lang masterfully utilizes the absence of sound, which in a ‘talkie’ can serve just as much of a dramatic purpose as sound itself. In this case, he accentuates Beckert’s shock along with the intensity of the hatred directed at him by having hundreds of judgmental eyes stare at him motionlessly and silently. This sequence serves as a counterpoint to Beckert’s yelling and flailing from a moment earlier. It’s not hard to imagine Beckert, with his bulging eyes, sweeping his head across the room in disbelief, taking in the hundreds of eyes judging him.

The moment before the film cuts back to Beckert, viewers hear him desperately calling for help. The crowd doesn’t react. The film then cuts to Beckert who, again, is looking up at the two men guarding the door and begging to get out. The film cuts back to a shot of four people sitting behind a table surrounded by spectators. Again, they stare impassively, unmoved by Beckert’s calls for help which continue unabated.

This sequence serves to highlight the hopelessness of the situation for Beckert. The gathered crowd doesn’t betray any empathy for him as he howls for help. By juxtaposing Beckert’s desperate cries with the judgmental look of the audience, the film expresses how little the audience care for this man. By the time that the ersatz judge tells Beckert that he’ll never escape the room, viewers know that Beckert has no choice but to face a room of people that have no sympathy for him.

The scene cuts back to Beckert’s side of the room. He now understands that he won’t be able to escape from the room. He changes his facial expression as he abruptly shifts strategies. He begins to appeal to the audience, claiming that they have the wrong man. As he does this, the frame tightens around him serving the dual purpose of focusing the viewer’s attention on Beckert’s suddenly warm expression and setting up the next piece of action.

As Beckert continues to make his appeal, a hand appears on the left side of the frame and grabs his shoulder, silencing him. Again, the film uses sound to heighten suspense. Instead of revealing the owner of the hand, the film has him speak first, saying that Beckert is the murderer. Viewers are left to wonder in those brief moments who would be able to credibly level such an accusation. More importantly, this combination of framing and sound puts us in the same mindset as Beckert himself. He, just like the viewer, can hear the voice of the accuser, but he doesn’t know who he is.

It is only as Beckert turns to face his accuser that the camera pulls back revealing that the hand belongs to the blind balloon seller. As the balloon seller explains how he knows Beckert is guilty, the camera pulls back more, revealing that he’s holding the same kind of balloon that he sold to Elsie Beckmann. This camera movement ensures that viewers experience this sequence from Beckert’s perspective.

As the balloon seller explains that he remembers Beckert buying the same kind of child-shaped balloon for Elsie Beckmann, he lets it float up to the ceiling. The film cuts to a shot where the camera is placed behind the balloon that looms over Beckert, who is staring at it, clearly reminded of the murder he’s committed. In the background, the crowd, like the balloon, loom over him. Beckert is trapped between an angry mob and the memory of the child that he murdered.

Beckert, haunted by his own crime, backs up into the judges, where the man heading the trial yells a question. To reflect the abruptness of the man’s explosive question, the film cuts quickly to a shot of Beckert turning around to face his judges before immediately cutting back to a close-up shot of the man asking the question.

The film cuts back to a shot of Beckert, who walks into the center of the screen where he makes his appeal that he’s never met any of the murdered girls. The camera, in this shot, is taking the perspective of the audience, who watch as Beckert fumbles through his answers.

The film cuts back to the accuser who holds up a photograph of another one of the missing girls. The camera then cuts back to Beckert, who takes a step back, before cutting back to close ups of the accuser showing Beckert photo after photo of the missing girls. As the accuser switches between photos, the angry faces of audience members, previously obscured by the photos, are revealed momentarily. 

After briefly cutting between an increasingly agitated Beckert and photos of the murdered girls, Beckert, in desperation, tries to make a break for it. He turns from the camera and runs towards the door as the camera holds still.

From this sequence, it’s possible to see many of the techniques that made Fritz Lang a master filmmaker. His pioneering use of sound not only helped establish sound as a way of explaining relationships between images on the screen, but perhaps more importantly, showed how sound and silence could be used together to increase the emotional impact of film. Furthermore, his careful use of framing utilizes the seemingly objective image in each frame to put us in the subjective frame of mind of people participating in the action of the film. Put all these techniques together, and you end up with a masterpiece like M.