restricted access Indexing Identity: Fritz Lang’s M
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Indexing Identity:
Fritz Lang’s M

The title and opening shot of Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M refer not to a person or an event but an imprint: we all know the famous scene in which Peter Lorre’s upper back gets stamped with the letter M, indelibly identifying him as the serial murderer of children the city has been desperately seeking (fig. 1).1 The title thus names a mark or imprint and, by implication, the act of imprimatur in which it originates. Of course, the letter M brings the words “Mord” (“murder”) and “Mörder” (“murderer”) to mind, and it also recalls a number of the movie’s central themes—Mütter (mothers), Massen (crowds), Macht (power), Mobilmachung (mobilization), and Manie (mania)—not to mention Lang’s filmic oeuvre: Metropolis (1925), Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon [1928]), Der müde Tod (Destiny [1921]), and multiple Mabuse movies.2 It is a suggestive letter that contains both a thematic and a cinematic index, and it is also, most basically and literally, an imprint—a material trace, an indexical sign.

Recognizing the title and opening image of Lang’s film as an imprint draws attention to the numerous scenes of imprimatur in M.3 The film continually represents the act of leaving and reading impressions: there are handprints and fingerprints, dactylographers and graphologists, newspaper print, facsimile prints, serialized novels, carbon copies, signatures, handwriting, and an abundance of writing materials and written documents. The film, in short, continually displays the realia of writing. The six stills in figure 2 are taken from the nearly countless scenes in the film that depict verbal impressions and, more often than not, the hands, fingers, and writing implements that produce them (fig. 2). What do we make of these scenes of imprimatur? How do [End Page 425] we read this deep fascination with hands and fingers, and the impressions—particularly imprinted words and letters—they leave behind?

Fig. 1. The opening shot of M.
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Fig. 1.

The opening shot of M.

I argue in this article that M posits a view of individual identity that is determined not by personality or interiority but by the physical traces a person leaves behind and are left behind on him. Identity, thus, becomes a function of identification—something outward and external. In this way, Lang exposes and critiques how identity is conceived and established in modern society—as something cold, objective, and impersonal. At the same time, Lang is operating within a medium and genre that are self-consciously indexical, since film and the detective story rely, respectively, on techniques and semiotics that contain “a trace of the real.” M thus operates according to the same principle of imprimatur that governs the determination of identity in modernity. This principle itself contributes to the film’s emphasis on nonvisual modes of knowledge and expression, specifically the tactile and the auditory. Indeed, the acoustic trace, of which the film’s pivotal moment of identification is an example, reveals a logic not only of ontological indexicality (the index as trace) but also of deictic indexicality (the index as pointer). In M, then, vision, hearing, and touch are all interconnected, and moreover all three modes of sensation participate in indexical modes of knowing and signifying. Through its use of the imprint, Lang’s film both performs a critique of modern society and moves toward an idea of embodied cinema. [End Page 426]

Fig. 2. Scenes of inscription.
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Fig. 2.

Scenes of inscription.

Identity and Indexicality

At two crucial moments in M, a character explicitly poses the question of identity. Early in the film a group of Berliners sits around a table at a local pub and reads from a newspaper article on the search for the child murderer who is terrorizing the city: “Who is the murderer? What does he look like? Where is he hiding?” These questions reflect the police’s exasperatingly difficult search, which we learn about in great detail in the following scene, where the chief of police describes their painstaking and as yet unsuccessful investigative efforts. Near the end of the film, when Beckert, the suspected murderer, stands trial before...


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