As those practicing real estate might repeat their mantra “Location! Location! Location!”, so should filmmakers similarly recite “Repetition! Repetition! Repetition!”. Repetition, similar to location, does not stand on its own. It is not the foundation, nor any part of the structure of the film itself, but when correctly wielded it becomes one of the strongest tools for executing your goals, whether selling a house or making a movie. Repetition of filmmaking techniques is a simple tool that can improve the final product greatly.
The Fritz Lang film M is a perfect example of repetition in action. While many films will limit repeating themselves to spoken dialogue, as the beautifully self-referential scripts of Aaron Sorkin do, or perhaps in a few repeating gags, such as the reoccurring Cornetto ice creams scattered through the work of director Edgar Wright, Fritz Lang highlights his editing, cinematography, blocking, and sound by creating connections through their reoccurrence.
The first time he does this is seven minutes in when Elsie’s mother searches for her daughter. The first shot is from the POV of Elsie’s mother as she looks for Elsie, illustrating the loss of the girl with a stagnant shot of the location and symmetrical framing. The cut back to this shallow shot occurs right after the mother looks out the window again. Rather than being from the mother’s POV once more, the same shot tells the audience she is just as unsuccessful at finding Elsie in the second place she looks as the first.
Lang sets up this visual shorthand in order to use it again in a slightly different way when Inspector Lohmann is reading about the robbery. From there we see a sequence of shots mostly copied from the earlier manhunt sequence.
(For this sequence, I will have to use timestamps to establish my point more accurately. The film is currently on HBO Max if you wish to follow along. The timestamps should be accurate within a few seconds.)
Beginning the sequence, the message being printed out that we fade into to start the sequence is almost that same shot as when we earlier saw that same machine.
The plan of the building we see next is an extreme close-up version of the standard close-up we saw earlier of the buildings blueprints when the alarm was first rung.
Immediately following that we see a wide establishing shot mimicking part of the break in sequence from a more objective perspective.
Lang demonstates his bold pride in this technique by next reincorporating a full sequence of three of the same shots in a row from 1:20:55, though they’re cut quicker, with fades serving as transitions instead of hard cuts. With a flip of the page, this montage of previous shots is abandoned for a few moments. We see shots we’ve never seen before that serve to give us the same confusion Inspector Lohmann is feeling. Just as we are unfamiliar with these shots, Lohmann’s voice over states his confusion with what he’s reading. Then, with another page turn and a shot of the door to the attic we’re brought back into a slight bit of understanding.
These shots bring us into the attic until we are drawn to the killer’s hiding spot, which is a filmed from a similar angle from which we previously saw him caught.
Finally, we fade through gray to rest at a recreation of the last shot in the manhunt sequence. Just as it finished that scene, it finishes this montage, allowing the audience to note the Inspector is all caught up.
This montage is incredibly significant to the rest of the film’s story; it informs all of Inspector Lohmann’s decisions for the rest of the film by telling us what he knows and, more importantly, what he doesn’t yet know. Besides the unconscious guards, the shots chosen to repeat contain no characters, just as Lohmann doesn’t know who did this. The murderer Hans Beckert never makes an appearance in Lohmann’s readings; the inspector doesn’t even know this was a manhunt. All he does know is what was left behind. But through this use of repetition, the film clues the viewer in and reminds them of the boarders between what they know and what Lohmann does.
Arguably the most effective scene in the film contains in itself a set up for the final image of the film through blocking rather than editing. During the murderer’s “trial”, we are brought to eye level with Hans Beckert for the first time in the scene at the moment he collapsed to the ground. He stares headlight-like almost straight into the camera, begging for his life and pleading for his peers to show some understanding towards his mental condition.
Similarly, at the last shot of the film, we see three mothers, the center one gazing slightly to the side of the eye-level camera, pleading wide eyed for those watching her to watch over their children. Her saucers for eyes turn straight on to us as we fade to black and end the film. In both these sequences sympathy is demanded, almost directly, of the audience. Looking at the camera is one of the most unnerving and effective captors of an audience’s attention one can execute, and the reoccurrence draws a parallel between the two cries for attention and springs to mind many questions. Who does the audience side with? Are these points so opposite? Can one only subscribe to one side?
This motif of repetition in M is not only executed through his editing and cinematography, but through sound as well. Hans Beckert’s iconic whistle becomes so associated with his presence that viewers may experience a programmed near-Pavlovian response of dread when hearing it. My own ears were on high alert, frequently irritated by smatterings of whistles by other characters as I waited for the killer to strike again. This active search by audiences for when the killer would strike again ensured those viewing the film experienced some of the same emotional turmoil that the whole city seemed to be going through with this killer out on the loose. It’s an immensely important bit of empathy to have, given the crucial mistrial at the end of the movie. Without the killer’s repeating I argue that M would not be able to sell how strong the fear and paranoia of the city is, since that paranoia is lightly mirrored in us.