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March 19, 2004

"M" and Camera-Space

M Logo Wide.jpg


You may remember my email to you of a few weeks ago:

What, no response to my crack about a chimpanzee being able to direct a Hollywood feature? At least one equipped with (1) a ‘radio drama’ script in which all the key information is conveyed via the soundtrack and (2) a cinematographer who could expose the film correctly, get enough basic coverage (i.e., ensure you can see everyone talking and acting) and deal with basic continuity (keeping the actor on the right on the right and the one on the left on the left as you switch shots).

Actually, that raises an interesting question: what exactly is the difference between such a chimpanzee (or, say, Rob Reiner) and someone who knows how to use a camera (say, in his 'Warrior' days, Walter Hill or Carl Dreyer)?

Well, as you recall, I ended up answering my own question with a reference to something I called camera-space. I meant the use of visual elements (cinematography, lighting, art direction, sets, locations and the staging of the action) to suggest the feel of the ‘space’ in which the film takes place. Such space can seem claustrophobic (Carl Dreyer’s “Day of Wrath”), menacing (Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”), vast & existentially empty (Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”), intoxicatingly fluid (Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game”), mechanistically deterministic (Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove”) etc., etc. Directors who create a consistent and emotionally affecting sense of this ‘space’ in a film constitute, to me, the elite of their profession.

A brief aside to fans of Rob Reiner: I’m not criticizing Mr. Reiner or his films, some of which I like. I used his particular name in vain because he is fairly representative of modern Hollywood directors in having no obvious visual preoccupations in his films other than a desire to make sure that the audience can clearly follow the action and see the actors deliver their lines. (He also deserves some abuse for having directed the late, unlamented "Alex and Emma.")

However, our discussion got me wondering whether or not my ideas—based on my college-student film-buff experiences, now several decades in the past—still held up, or whether I was just talking through my hat. So I decided to take another look at a movie that, according to my memory anyway, seemed to have a strong sense of such a ‘camera-space.’ Being a man of action, I quickly implemented this decision by bugging my wife to add the DVD of Fritz Lang’s “M” to our weekly order from Netflix.

A few days later I watched “M” and was remarkably pleased to see that even in 2004 I still thought that the film was a masterpiece and that it not only possessed a ‘camera-space’ concept but one clear enough to demonstrate how the director went about the task of creating it.

To make this discussion intelligible, I need to explain a bit about the film. The 1931 “M” is a sociological study masquerading as a suspense film. Its real subject is the social response of an unnamed German city to the predations of a serial killer focusing on children. (The film is generally considered to derive from the real-life case of Peter Kurten, who terrorized Dusseldorf in 1930, although the film was actually shot in identifiable neighborhoods in the eastern part of Berlin.)

Although “M” has a number of memorable characters including the serial killer Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre), the ‘old-pro’ police inspector ‘Pop’ Lohmann (Otto Wernicke)--who was based on the real-life policeman Bennat who headed the Kurten investigation--and my favorite, the ever-resourceful crime-boss Shraenker (Gustaf Gründgens) who organizes the underworld to track down the killer, it is anything but a character-driven movie.

The Murderer (Peter Lorre) As Victim

In fact, it goes far beyond being even an ‘ensemble’ piece, as it features literally dozens of vivid characters who are ‘picked up’ by the narrative, given a few moments of camera time, and then discarded for new faces. At times it utilizes documentary techniques, such as a remarkable sequence in which the police chief briefs an impatient mayor via telephone on the progress (and difficulties) of the investigation. One part of that sequence has the chief explaining to the mayor that the cops are using handwriting experts to study a note the murderer sent to the newspapers; we then cut to such an expert dictating a memo in which he maintains that the writer of the note possesses the character of an actor; we then cut to a shot of the murderer himself making faces in his bedroom mirror; we then cut back to the police chief continuing his explanation, and so forth. Later in the same sequence I was giddy with delight as the film made the widening scope of the investigation concrete by showing a hand literally drawing circles with a large compass on a map of the metropolitan area. “M” is a dramatic film, but one with strong spiritual affinities to blueprints, schedules and diagrams.

As a consequence the film is not organized in a typical dramatic fashion, i.e., focusing on the psychological development of one or more key characters. No, in “M,” mothers worry, detectives detect, authority figures (governmental and criminal) plan, innocent bystanders get caught up in the manhunt and complain about how inconvenient it all is, but there's no suggestion that anyone's behavior is going to be different in the future—nobody learns any ‘life lessons’ in this film. Even the dramatic conflict is remarkably impersonal as everybody—cops, criminals, politicians, prostitutes, ordinary citizens, serial killers—are basically just doing their jobs.

So how does Lang (and his cinematographer, Fritz Arno Wagner) visually organize such an unusual film and give it such a strong artistic character?

Well, several consistent features pretty much leap out at you:

1. The film has no close-ups (at least, no facial close-ups that I can remember.) It has a remarkable number of shots of people seen from behind. Both of these tendencies match the ‘sociological’ rather than ‘psychological’ thrust of the film.

2. Lang seems to shoot most of the movie with fairly wide-angle lenses, or at a minimum to frame his compositions so that the characters are presented along with their environment. These environments almost always include sociological background information on the character being presented (e.g., we see gangsters in smoky but luxuriously furnished rented rooms, rumpled police inspectors sitting at cluttered desks, laundresses in their working-class apartments, underworld-dive owners standing in front of well-stocked bars, etc.)

Laundresses and Crime Bosses In Their Respective 'Environments'

3. In the same spirit, one suspects, that Lang avoided close-ups, he also avoids ostentatiously quick cutting (which doesn’t prevent the film from moving along quite briskly). He had several motives, I suspect, for this approach. First, with such a large cast of characters, often linked together more intellectually than in conventional dramatic fashion, he needs to keep the audience oriented in time and place, and quick cutting would be too disruptive. Also, not having much time to spend with each character, he has to present a lot of information about them visually, so the clues ‘planted’ in their backgrounds, context and clothing need to be extremely clear and legible; again, quick-cutting would not have served him well. Finally, given the sociological and intellectual treatment of his subject, he conveys a great deal of the emotional content, his ‘tone’ so to speak, via visual tropes and symbols, and he needs you to take a good look at each composition or you’ll miss the metaphor.

Visual Metaphors: Children Play At Selecting 'Victims' and the Shadow of a Killer

4. Although the links between shots are often inventive and amazingly efficient (particularly for a director working for the first time in sound) and he makes an effective, if restrained, use of a moving camera, the effect is not fluid, exactly: it’s more as if each shot is a solid little brick of meaning, the film itself is the wall the bricks are inserted into, and the film’s meaning emerges from the pattern they make.

5. His compositions are nearly always based on, and reinforce, the one-, two- or three-point perspective underlying the space being presented, and the resulting three-dimensional effect is usually clarified rather than erased by his lighting, however dramatic. This has a tendency to reinforce the viewer’s awareness of the constraints and limits that the physical architecture (and by extension, the entire social environment) imposes on the characters. This echoes and is echoed by the content of the film where characters are repeatedly immersed in situations (traps, really) that they desperately want to escape, or are facing limitations they would love to break through. (I refer to this effect as Lang’s ‘Geometry of Fate.’)

Trapped in the Geometry of Fate

6. The camera almost never takes a ‘subjective’ shot; pretty much, the film’s action is presented from a point of view shared by none of the characters. This is reinforced by Lang’s great fondness for high-angle, looking-down-from-on-high shots. These characteristics help give the film its note of extreme objectivity; Lang has chosen to present a great deal of the material from what might be described as God’s point-of-view.

All of these features help to create the film’s central oddity: it’s a sociological study that Lang's use of ‘camera-space’ turns into a rather grim metaphysical or religious vision. Of course, that's why the ending is almost a bit flippant—the only real ending for the film would have required God to show up and be cross-examined on the nature of good and evil!

Good and Evil from God's Point of View

I hope all this illustrates a bit what I meant with my little neologism, camera-space. I’m sort of tempted to rent films by other directors with a strong sense of camera-space; it would be interesting to see where the visual approaches of various directors were similar, and where they were different.



P.S. It seems kind of hard to avoid the notion that directing silent films must have been an excellent way to develop one’s sense of camera-space; equally, that today’s directors are rather seriously handicapped in that regard. Or is there another explanation I'm missing for the general lack of visual distinctiveness in today's movies?

P.P.S. Michael Blowhard asks, in a comment, "Which filmmakers working today whose work you know would you say have some genuine interest in this kind of camera space?" Since he is too cagey to share his list of such contemporary filmmakers, does anyone out there have any nominations?

posted by Friedrich at March 19, 2004


Hot stuff. If you were an ambitious young film nerd, you could turn this "camera-space" thing of yours into books, speaking positions and tenure. Well, for tenure you might have to stir some feminism or post-colonialism into the mix ... Too bad about Film Studies, eh?

The "M" stills look as exciting as ever. Makes me feel nostalgic not just for the days of watching two or three movies then babbling for hours about them, but also for the days when thinking of this sort about movies was a more common thing.

Couple of questions?

Which filmmakers working today whose work you know would you say have some genuine interest in this kind of camera space? Some of the oldtimers, some of the hardcore-arty Euros, certainly. But of the younger people. I wonder. I've got candidates but will withhold 'em until others pitch in here, given that I'm more curious about what people come up with than I am about my own opinions.

And how was the DVD of "M"? A good print? Decent goodies to accompany it? I haven't watched a silent Lang in (cough cough) a few decades ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 19, 2004 11:27 AM

Great post, but I might add just one more film, in your first list - 2001 - A Space Odessey.

Where did you get the DVD of "M" - Borders or Amazon? I have never seen this flick and now I am so intrigued! Absolutely love great old B&W flicks. One of my alltime fav's is "Laura".

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on March 19, 2004 11:47 AM


You ought to feel nostalgic; I think you and I saw "M" together many moons ago.

As for contemporary film-makers who have a strong sense of camera-space, that's a tough one. I'm not sure if they're just more thin-on-the-ground these days, or if I'm just not very up on the more artistically ambitious directors of the present. (I mean, you know, the wife and I go out to the cineplex on Saturday nights if we can get a sitter.) The contemporary film that "M" brings to mind most, of course, is Steven Soderberg's "Traffic" although a direct comparison is not particularly favorable to Mr. Soderberg. Mr. Soderberg clearly has a bit of a feel for a camera (his ability to create a sort of high-priced look for "Ocean's Eleven" is testament to that)but, like most people who don't seem to have put in their time at the silent movie rock-pile, the density of his images, the volume of visual metaphor they contain, is on the short side. (I guess I gotta do another post on visual interesting topic I didn't have enough space to get into here.)However, I'd love to hear your list of contemporary camera-space jockeys!

As for the DVD, I didn't get a chance to check it out for goodies. The image quality was pretty good, although at some points there was a lot of digital 'noise.' (I really don't know if that was on the DVD, or if I just had a dirty disk from Netflix. I was going to clean it, but my efficient wife mailed it back to them.)


As I said, I rented it. I don't know where you can buy it, but I would definitely recommend that you see it somehow. It's always been one of my all-time favorites, and it was great to see it again and have that judgment confirmed (so many others go by the board, alas...!)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 19, 2004 12:13 PM

Great black and white crime/intrigue movies always seem to have Peter Lorre in them. I have nothing knowledgeable or useful to add about camera space; just noting that directors who seemed to want to accomplish something in black and white always used Peter Lorre. Huh. Go figure.

Posted by: annette on March 19, 2004 12:20 PM


I think it was Pauline Kael who remarked that while Lorre was filming "M" at night, during the day he was appearing in a light comedy on stage. Maybe he's just an underappreciated acting superman.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 19, 2004 12:27 PM

For more on this type of thing check out this guy's page on Lang. Also Sidney Lumet's Making Movies, the bit on lenses especially. In fact, if I were teaching a class and wanted to get across the concept, I'd show The Hill followed by Murder on the Orient Express; if they still couldn't get it, to hell with them.

Have you noticed how today's films are nothing but closeups? The physical background is such an important tool for characterization, both psychological and sociological, and such a powerful influencer of mood; it's a shame that so many current directors leave this tool in the shed.

"A long-playing full shot is what separates the men from the boys. Anybody can make movies with a pair of scissors and a two-inch lens." - Orson Welles

We're left with photographs of actors talking, as Hitch called this style. Some say it's because today's directors come from television, others say it's because films are mostly watched on video these days, and still others say it's because those tiny monitors used on-set to preview shots encourage thinking small. Whatever the cause, I hope it's just a passing fad, though I suspect it ain't.

Truffaut agrees with your silents-are-golden theory:

"If the cinema, by some twist of fate, were to be deprived overnight of the soundtrack and to become once again the art of silent cinematography that it was between 1895 and 1930, I truly belive that most of the directors in the field would be compelled to take up some new line of work." - Francois Truffaut, 1966

Posted by: Brian on March 19, 2004 01:53 PM

Good analysis of M. It's available on DVD from Criterion.

I can't think of too many filmmakers outside German Expressionism -- or within it, for that matter -- as oppressively deterministic as Lang. His characters are almost always either puppets of fate, or pawns of other characters. Even FW Murnau, though no less gifted in his deployment of camera-space, was less rigorously geometric and far more humanistic.

Charles Burnett's films possess a skillful deployment of visual relationships between characters as well as between characters and their environment. I also like the cinematic sense of Todd Haynes, especially in Poison and Far From Heaven. Clint Eastwood's films, I think, insist on placing their characters within a powerful and specific environment. But in none of these cases do these relationships fall into discernible geometric shapes.

Perhaps that's because most contemporary directors who create this "camera-space" guide the viewer's eye with color rather than hard geometry.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on March 19, 2004 04:55 PM

"Which filmmakers working today whose work you know would you say have some genuine interest in this kind of camera space?"

Terry Gilliam (even with the sound off you can follow "12 Monkeys")

Ridley Scott (when he wants to--"Alien" reeks of claustrophobia and isolation)

Tim Burton (but it is all he is interested in--his films are visually stunning but very thin)

David Fincher (the camera in "Seven" sees the world through Kevin Spacey's eyes, corrupt, sinful, and begging for reckoning)

I'm sure I could think of some others, but those leap immediately to mind.

Posted by: carl on March 19, 2004 08:46 PM

How about Ang Lee? His commentary on the "Sense and Sensibility" DVD about using the frame to define the respective qualities of the sisters is very illuminating. He uses the camera as a storytelling tool (as opposed to just pictorially) more than most people working now-- oh! except Peter Weir of course-- "Master and Commander was marvellous for getting that feeling of shipness.

Are you familiar with Bruce Block's work? He's written the only practical book I know on anything approaching 'film space', (please forgive the awkward link I don't know how to code in this particular comment's box):

You have a wonderful blog here, there don't seem to be a lot of 'meaty' blogs on creative subjects. Thanks for giving my day a lift!

Posted by: SydneyP on March 21, 2004 07:28 PM

It's funny that you started this thread because just two days ago I was attending a silent film festival at Emory and we were watching the silent version of Hitchcock's Blackmail. Bill Eggert, the president of the Silent Film Society of Atlanta, mentioned that Hitchcock was disappointed that the introduction of sound into film should have been used to augment visual technique. Instead it led to movies that were merely pictures of people talking. Eggert wondered what Hitch would have thought of My Dinner with Andre, for example.

Anyway among living directors, Roman Polanski (see the ending of The Pianist) and David Lynch (see the opening of Blue Velvet) would top the list. I'd second the Soderbergh nomination, especially considering The Limey.

Other living directors in no particular order:
Martin Scorcese, Terence Malik, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, Larry and Andy Wachowski, Steven Spielberg, Luc Besson, Ingmar Bergman, Terry Gilliam, Elia Kazan, Peter Jackson, Atom Egoyan, William Friedkin, George Lucas.

I don't think all of them have necessarily made good films, and some of them definitely have their best films behind them, but they do know how to use cinema as a visual medium.

By the way, aren't you really discussing mise an scene and cinematography here? Is it necessary to coin the term "visual space"?

Posted by: Chris Martin on March 23, 2004 03:03 PM

Mr. Martin:

Perhaps I'm being a bit too fancy, but I'm attempting to import into cinema a concept that I ran into in the visual arts. (Check out, for example, "Working Space" by Frank Stella.) I also coined a term to avoid confusion with the all-too-common movie-buff tendency to indiscriminately praise visual 'style.' There are many 'stylish' movies (in their own ways, "Pearl Harbor" or "Ocean's Eleven")that would not begin to make the cut by my definition of camera space. Whereas, every movie has 'cinematography' and 'mis en scene.'

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 23, 2004 04:24 PM

Oops, forgot something.

I'm also talking about the use of visual tropes to convey either plot information or emotional information. This creates a visual density and emotional subtext that not all movies (in fact, very few contemporary movies) possess. It would seem to me very difficult to achieve the kind of density of visual tropes that are in "M" in a movie that begins life as a traditionally written sound script. (Remember, Lang himself was one of the writers of "M").

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 23, 2004 04:34 PM

Akira Kurosawa.

Posted by: Toby on March 25, 2004 08:10 AM

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