Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 5, February 2003



Joel Freeman


The Semiosis of Death in Lang's _M_:

Film and the Limits of Representation in the Weimar Republic




Directed by Fritz Lang

Germany, 1931


The cultural production of the Weimar Republic is marked by an obsession with death. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the films of the inter-war years. This obsession reaches a remarkable apotheosis in Fritz Lang's _M_ (1931). _M_ brings into focus the absence of presence that is inherent in any attempt to represent death. This is the principal factor that gives _M_ a high degree of visual and conceptual intensity. _M_ makes explicit the degree to which film, as a medium, operates as a trope and vessel for death in the cultural arena. When we excavate the conceptual and cultural ground from which _M_ emerges we find that the film is itself conditioned by a constant re-discovery of the structurally determined relationship of film to death. _M_ offers an unfolding of the formal properties of film, which drive film compulsively back into the terrain of death. At the same time the film makes explicit the specific theoretical and historical factors that shape and condition its recourse to representations of death. In this sense _M_ can also be seen as an intervention in the philosophical and aesthetic discourses surrounding death in Germany between the wars.


All of this is only possible because _M_ takes as its organizing principle a self-conscious inquiry into the impossibility of representation that is intrinsic to death. Any work of art that uses death in order to advance a narrative or aesthetic purpose is instantly thrown into an impossible position regarding its own effort to offer representation. This impossibility is foregrounded throughout the film. Consequently representation of death, qua representation, becomes its subject matter. By explicitly thematizing the absence of presence inherent to representations of death, _M_ establishes a unique cinematic semiotics of death. One of the theoretical by-products of this is that it illustrates, in sharp detail, the fact that core elements of the cultural life of the Weimar Republic were predicated on a compulsive return to the problem of the limits of representation. _M_ also illustrates the way in which the return to death is itself marked by a desire to overcome the impossible. [1] The virtue of _M_ is that it foregrounds the position of death in a way that challenges normal modes of representation of death. This makes it an ideal site for an inquiry into the fundamental structural features of film. In treating death it employs a method that one might call non-objective representation. When we excavate the theoretical sub-text that conditions _M_ we discover that this method, that of non-objective or non-representative representation, is in aesthetic terms its operative principle. Non-objective representation is what allows _M_ its semiotics of death. It is also what allows _M_ to successfully navigate between an aesthetic of pure non-objectivity which was advocated in certain quarters of the avant-garde, [2] and the unconsciously mimetic that dominates in art produced for mass consumption. The very notion of non-objective representation is of course inherently paradoxical. But it is only by reading the manifestations of this method in _M_ that we uncover the structural elements that force film, as film, into its compulsive return to death. Thus the traces of non-objective representation in _M_ and indeed in film as such, are the aesthetic signifiers that allow us to unravel its peculiar semiotics of death.


An inquiry into the relation of the structural features of _M_ reveals that film itself (and not just _M_) is structurally bound to the absence of presence. Further, we find that the presence of absence, or the absence of presence is a constitutive feature of representation in general, whether it be pictorial or textually based. Film in particular, as the paradigmatic vessel for the absence of presence is, as such, a trope for death. Its formal properties determine that it must operate in culture as a trope and vessel for death. Exactly why this is so will be addressed later on. For the moment it is important to note that inquiry into the formal properties of film does not preclude contextual or historical considerations. In fact just the opposite; in _M_ the operation of film as trope and vessel for death reveals in turn the status of death as a guiding trope for the political life of the Weimar Republic. In this regard the formal properties of the film (its narrative content and the historical ground from which it emerges) are all inextricably bound together in death. In _M_ the essential inter-linkage of these putatively separate arenas becomes clear.


_M_ provides us with the material necessary for an understanding of the role that film has as trope for death in the cultural life of the Weimar Republic. In order to understand how _M_ allows us this discovery we need to have at hand a sketch of the conceptual ground from which the film emerged. _M_'s position as a cinematic moment that provides a view onto the formal properties of film as trope for death is itself only possible because of the particular historical and conceptual circumstances that gave it birth. In this sense _M_ supports the notion that every layer of the work of art is conditioned by its historical context. In narrative terms _M_ is most effective when it opens itself to socio-historical and philosophical questions regarding the status of death in the Weimar Republic. _M_ is thoroughly conditioned by these sorts of contextual questions. On no count does _M_ perform its cinematic enactment of death, of the presence of absence, separate from these questions. As such _M_ throws light on both the conceptual and ideological framework of the Weimar Republic and on the formal properties of film as a medium. These two registers, the formal and the contextual, treated together, bring the death in _M_ out of the shadows and afford a view onto how, 'the epitome of all tropes' [3] operates in the cultural arena. When we view _M_ through these registers the film brings us to the realization that death is the framing element for many of the most basic structural features of cultural production in Germany between the wars.


In order to gain a foothold into the conceptual and historical context that allows _M_ to operate successfully as trope and vessel for death, we can turn to a perhaps unlikely source, Edmund Husserl. In his Fichte lectures of 1917 Husserl indicates the degree to which, in the aftermath of World War I, death established an extraordinary lordship in the cultural life of the Weimar Republic:


'Need and death are today's teachers. For many years now death is not an exceptional event which permits itself to hide and have its majesty debased through splendid congregations, under piles of bouquets and wreaths. Death has again won back its holy primal right. It is the great reminder of eternity in time.' [4]


The sentiments that Husserl echoes here were not at all uncommon among the vast majority of Germans and among its intelligentsia. The 'again' in Husserl's phrase ('Death has again won back its holy primal right') indicates the historically specific relationship to death that manifested itself in Germany after WWI. It points to the conviction that WWI brought about a return to (in Sigmund Freud's words) old primeval forms of barbarity, [5] which many Germans, especially those conditioned by the relative comfort and prosperity of Wilhelmine society, imagined had been educated out of civilized Europe. The unadorned barbarism of WWI proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that long cultivated Enlightenment values were a mere delusion, a mask designed to hide and domesticate the fundamental and inexplicable blood lust that lay at the root of 'civilization'. Where once the term civilization could be used with confidence, WWI made it necessary to conceive the term in italics because everything the term was supposed to signify (reason, the autonomous subject, liberal democracy) were fundamentally destabilized. Max Horkheimer provides a succinct treatment of this phenomenon in his essay 'The End of Reason'. Though published in 1941, and obviously meant to critique the rise of National Socialism, it echoes quite well the troubled and troubling position of reason throughout the inter-war period:


'The fundamental concepts of civilization are in a process of rapid decay. The rising generation no longer feels any confidence in them, and fascism has strengthened their suspicions. The question of how far these concepts are at all valid clamours more than ever for an answer. The decisive concept among them was that of reason, and philosophy knew of no higher principle. It was supposed to order the relationships among men and to justify the performances demanded of them.' [6]


The conceptual and ethical system that Horkheimer alludes to here found itself in an extremely precarious position from the first moment of the Weimar Republic. The validity of reason as the guiding paradigm for 'civilization' was ruined in part because WWI appeared to bring about a return not just to barbarism, but to a barbarism accompanied by the dramatically increased destructive power of industrialized warfare. The marriage of technology and an irrational, elemental blood lust created a new plateau of mass destruction. Mechanized mass destruction illustrated that the belief system traditionally attached to the conceptual nexus of reason ('Vernunft') and education ('Bildung') was itself not only complicit in the slaughter, but in fact the enabling agent for the slaughter. Thus the war exposed the dangers that adhere in instrumental rationality, but which had until the war been largely repressed in the name of the enlightenment model of reason, education, and progress. [7] The war laid bare the malignant irrationality that always lurks within the rational conceptual order. According to Adorno and Horkheimer in the _Dialectic of Enlightenment_, reason is itself predicated on a desire for violent lordship over the objective realm. As such a primal drive to dominate nature forms the true essence of the machinery of reason. Consequently reason operates as an ideological mask for the drive to domination and as such is itself ultimately irrational in that is leads to self-destructive ends:


'The absurdity of a state of affairs in which the enforced power of the system over men grows with every step that takes it out of the power of nature, denounces the rationality of the rational society as obsolete. Its necessity is illusive, no less than the freedom of the entrepreneurs who ultimately reveal their compulsive nature in their inevitable wars and contracts.' [8]


Though these ideas were formulated during and after the second war not the first, it is safe to say that the first war was in many respects the principle catalyst for the critical framework that they emerged from. Not until WWI do we see such widespread distrust of rationality as the organizing paradigm for Western societies. [9] The shock of WWI led to a great levelling of the conceptual and ethical playing field, leaving in its wake a heightened awareness of the presence of death. Tropologically speaking, death visited itself upon Europe, during and after WWI, wearing the mask of a corrupted reason. The mask of reason was found to be a guise for death, and it had at its beck and call a blood-thirsty form of the irrational. Death was no longer an entity that operated outside the secure, rationally established boundaries of Enlightened society. With WWI death burrowed its way into the very center of reason itself. The war illustrated that the comfortable boundaries of European societies, putatively predicated on rational discourse, were a delusion. The rational industrialized lordship of death that marked WWI highlighted the vicious irrationality that lurks within reason. As such death was found to be simply waiting patiently all along for the right moment to step forward, take up the reigns of power, and wreak immeasurable havoc. Consequently death erased the foundation of faith in reason that was still a powerful cultural force in Europe and in Germany before the advent of WWI. [10] Thus the trope that inaugurated and guided the psychic life of the Weimar Republic was death.


The kind of death that dominated much of the cultural discourse in the Weimar Republic was not a traditional form of death. It was a new face of death, one that had ascended to lordship by destabilizing the most basic principles of reason. Death enlisted the very tools that reason had provided men in the form of instrumental rationality and technology, and used these tools in the service of a primordial death drive. Sigmund Freud's 'Thoughts for the Times on War and Death' provides a concise illustration of the damage that war and the primeval death instinct can do to the 'civilized' order:


'To sum up: our unconscious is just as inaccessible to the idea of our own death, just as murderously inclined towards strangers, just as divided (that is ambivalent) towards those we love, as was primeval man. But how far we have moved from this primal state in our conventional and attitudes toward death!


'It is easy to see how war impinges on this dichotomy. It strips us of the later accretions of civilization, and lays bare the primal man in each of us.' (299) [11]


The unique shock of the war was contained not just in the presence of death, which always raises its head in each and every war, but the shock was also a result of the way that reason and rationality had been perverted into the mere servants of death. Thus one of the most disturbing truths hammered home by the war was that instrumental rationality itself had efficiently turned the enlightenment model of reason into a thing of ruins. It did this through the efficient exercise of industrialized warfare and the technology of mass destruction. It follows then that in many important respects the post-WWI years in Germany were marked by a shift from reason as the predominant cultural paradigm to a period in which no unifying or guiding paradigms were to be found. Death, opportunistic as ever, inserted itself into the ensuing gap and established itself as the guiding trope for the Weimar Republic. At this juncture the fundamental inter-linkage of the historical and conceptual context of the Weimar Republic to _M_ ought to be clear. The notion that death was in many respects both the inaugural and guiding trope for the Weimar Republic is corroborated by even a cursory glance at cultural production between 1917 and 1933. Disparate arenas such as literature, art, film, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and sociology are all marked by an attempt to negotiate the visceral intrusion of death into the everyday. [12]


Correspondingly _M_ also takes death as its inaugural moment. The first scene is not an actual scene but rather the absence of a scene. The film opens with a long moment of black space inhabited only by the sound of a gong. This opening is already a non-figurative, non-objective, figuration of death. By framing a dead zone _M_ points to the central position that death will have in its entirety. It also indicates a political parallel in as far as death was the founding and inaugural trope for the Weimar Republic as a whole. Here we already see at work the aesthetic principle of non-objective representation that I mentioned earlier. The black space of the opening moment is a deliberate framing of the impossibility of representation of death. Death operates in the out-of-field, [13] in this sense death is the frame for the entire film and the frame for the frames in the film. Death has to operate in the out-of-field because is a signifier that cannot be signified and as such it can only be invoked through the manipulation and framing of various kinds of absence. The black space is the quintessential expression of this absence. Thus already in the first seconds of the film death takes up a dominant out-of-field presence. This is a cinematic device, but it is also an indication of the dominant place that death established within the historical and conceptual context from which _M_ emerged.


_M_ is characterized by a fastidious attention to the presence of death in the everyday machinery of German society. One of the lessons of WWI was that the banality, everydayness, and even commodification of death is typical of large scale industrialized societies when they embark on war or enter into severe economic crisis. The film's central figure, Beckert, is not a literal figure for death, but he does in part embody what was, at the time, a new sort of everyday banality of death. As such Beckert is the locus around which the unrepresentability of death, as expressed in the absence of presence and the banality of death, organizes itself. For example, throughout the film Beckert's shadow is much more ominous than Beckert himself. Beckert appears rather innocent and incapable of controlling the overwhelming presence of death that dogs his every step. Death is the substance of the out-of-field that accrues around him. If we use Gilles Deleuze's definition of the out-of-field we can see that _M_ is predicated on an obsessive reference to the out-of-field presence of death, and also, in more general terms, that death is perhaps the quintessential out-of-field presence for film as such:


'The out-of-field refers to what is neither seen nor understood, but is nevertheless perfectly present . . . In one case, the out-of-field designates that which exists elsewhere, to one side or around; in the other case, the out-of-field testifies to a more disturbing presence, one which cannot even be said to exist, but rather to 'insist' or 'subsist', a more radical Elsewhere, outside homogenous space and time. Undoubtedly these two aspects to the out-of-field intermingle constantly.' [14]


In _M_ Beckert is the conduit for the out-of-field presence of death. In this sense Beckert is foremost a figure for the everyman who was quite helpless to control the lordship of death, one of the dominant features of Weimar culture. Rather than revel in his identity as serial killer he appears impotent and disoriented by the murderous death that has infected his shadow. Beckert is not in control of his own status as serial killer. In fact, we never see Beckert commit a murder and we are not given irrefutable proof that he is in fact the murderer. At times it seems that Beckert has a shadow double or alter ego that does the killings without his intention. What is important is not whether or not he committed the murders but where Beckert stands in relation to the suffocating absence of presence that shapes the atmosphere of the film as a whole. Beckert is clearly in many respects a victim of the suffocating out-of-field presence, death, which accrues around his being. Death is given its most literal tropological representation in the film through Beckert's shadow. Other non-representative signifiers, such as the constant play of shadows across the visual field, or a murdered child's balloon tangled in electric wires, also indicate that death is the ever present out-of-field. In every case Beckert himself is not present at the killing, nor is death ever literally represented. Beckert is merely a figure for the common person who is in essence a helpless witness to the immutable and unrepresentable lordship of death in his own life. In this regard actual murder would be a too positivistic and empowering enactment of death. It remains, like the out-of-field itself, a disembodied, unrepresentable entity.


When death encounters and is set in conflict with the rational social order, the narrative of _M_ is set in motion. In the most reductive terms possible, this is a struggle for domination between the power of death, the serial killer, and the powers of reason, the police. The plot is dependent for its forward motion on a rather familiar pattern of conflict between good and evil. As the story advances the police mobilize the entire city in a search for the murderer. The remnants of a rational social order are embodied by the police and in particular in the personage of Inspector Lohmann, the head of the homicide bureau. The effort to capture the murderer is logical, thorough going, and consummately rational. The focus on the thoroughness of the search reflects the fact that the social climate of the Weimar Republic had been so thoroughly infected by death that no stone could be left unturned in the effort to regain some degree of control over the presence of death. The killer calls forth the presence of death. This alone, once implanted in the minds of the masses, is enough to destabilize the precarious social order.


Here _M_ acts as a mirror of a poisoned public sphere. The often repeated phrase 'anyone's neighbor can be the murderer' (or 'the murderer is among us') is indicative of this climate of paranoia and extreme mistrust. The paranoia is not directed at outsiders alone but also reflects an even more unsettling mistrust of self. The mere shadow of the killer becomes death embodied in the public mind. The hysteria is not just a fear of death as other, as wholly outside, but equally a reaction to the fear that death and the irrational can and do spring from within. No one is safe, not from one's closest family members or from one's own 'primeval' self. In this sense death, much like the out-of-field in film, is at once inside and outside of the public body and each of its citizens. The police search, in as far as it aims at unveiling the source of this widespread paranoia, becomes a systematic and thorough, but hopeless, attempt to explain the unexplainable. The presence of the serial killer represents an embodiment of the dark realm of irrational desires and the death drive which, according to the lessons of WWI, lurked all along barely beneath the surface of civilized society. Thus the search itself is motivated by a desire to expose every inch of the public body to the light of reason. The hope being that in this way the sickness embodied in the out-of-field presence of death could be expurgated. In _M_ death is the consummate harbinger of the unknown, and reason is the only power capable of cleansing it from the public body.


The public itself, the masses, reacts with hysteria to the out-of field presence of death because they have a naive and primitive attitude of terror in the face of death. The police, a more mature and 'enlightened' class, offer a counter to this tendency in the masses. They embody the skeptical rationalist credo that nothing can be taken for granted and nothing can be assumed. Their belief in the power or reason and rational investigation acts as a kind of talisman against the primitive fear that the shadow of death evokes in the masses. Base, primordial fear of death can be and often has been manipulated for a variety of ideological purposes. In _M_ this fear is used to justify the most extreme and invasive sort of total mobilization and public investigation. This aspect of the film reflects the total mobilization for war that Germany underwent prior to WWI, and it also foreshadows the rise of fascism. The police act as administrators of life. They represent a hierarchical social structure that relies for its power on its ability to both preserve and deny life. In this regard the police embody the remnants of a social order that offered a degree of control over death through the exercise of reason. The power of instrumental rationality to administrate life depends on whether or not it manages to keep death within the bounds of social control. Michel Foucault elucidates this at length in _The History of Sexuality_: 'One might say that the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death.' [15]


The impending destruction of this social order is illustrated by the fact that in the end the killer is captured not by the police but by organized criminals. That a band of criminals and outcasts are the first to locate death illustrates the degree to which the rational social order embodied by the police was an entirely unstable entity, incapable of attending to its most basic prerogatives. This aspect of the narrative reflects not only the ineffectiveness of the Weimar Republic as a state but also the more broad-based failure of the enlightenment project itself. In this way _M_ reveals the degree to which, for its citizens, the Weimar Republic represented simply the meagre remains of a misguided and ineffective conceptual and social order. As such, in _M_, as in the actual Weimar Republic, liberal democracy was predetermined to fail, particularly when confronted with the elusive presence, or absence of presence, of death.


In _M_, in every instance, the negotiation and representation of death proves to be a failure. This holds true because any and all negotiations of death qua representation are bound to fail. _M_ performs a constant marking of this failure. As we have already seen the murderer himself is not a figure for death. Part of Beckert's function is that he stands as a marker for the failure that adheres in any negotiation of death. Negotiations of death always implode from within, precisely because the ambitions of representation meet their limit at death. Death, as a topic, regardless of the discipline, whether in the sciences, philosophy, sociology, cinema, literature, or the arts, is inherently limited to tropological representations. Any negotiation that does not first take this into account is bound to fail, not only in its attempt at representation, but also on its own terms because it operates without taking into account the limits intrinsic to its own efforts. Nevertheless, failure at the limit of representation, even if of the naive sentimental sort, often proves to be the most revealing sort of failure.


Correspondingly, in _M_, the self-conscious failure and impossibility inscribed in the trope of death is perhaps its greatest success. It is this failure that allows us to see the film as an aesthetic intervention into the dominant theoretical and ideological currents of its day. By making the impossibility of representation of death explicit, and by placing this impossibility in its social and ideological frame, _M_ acts as a counter to the overwhelming tendency in the inter-war period to make death into a subjective and ontologized entity. At a time when death was not just metaphorically, but literally everywhere, intellectual consideration of death tended to restrict itself to the arenas of psychoanalysis and phenomenology. As a result the specific political and ideological ramifications of death in the Weimar Republic were for the most part left uninterrogated. To ontologize or subjectivize death means simply to place the significance of death within a subjective frame and treat it as a feature of individual existence, bereft of ideological significance. Death, once subjectivized, is reduced to something that the individual must struggle with, either heroically or unheroically, on his own, in his own-most-being. Certainly one cannot deny the necessity and importance of ontologically and psychologically oriented inquiries into the meaning of death for individual beings, and in case of Heidegger the pre-subjective issue of Dasein in relation to Being. Nevertheless the ontological and subjectivist treatment of death tends to work to repress the political and ideological significance of death as it is manifest in culture. In the Weimar period psychoanalysis and phenomenology were the two most important poles in the intellectual terrain that fostered a subjectivized view of death. In Freud's work death is subjectivized by making death a feature of the unconscious, re-cognizable in terms of the death drive or the primitive fear of death manifest in the uncanny. In Heidegger's _Being and Time_, death, or Sein zum Tode, is analyzed as a feature of fundamental ontology. The overcoming of the inauthentic relationship toward death in everyday inauthentic dasein becomes a way for authentic dasein to achieve an authentic unoutstrippable, non-relational, anxious resolve in being-toward-death. [16]


_M_ works to counter these tendencies by calling into question the traditional ways that death is represented. By highlighting the problem of representation it offers a reminder of the fact that death, whether represented at the register of philosophy, literature, or art, is bound to a structural and conceptual absence and impotence. Death, particularly the presence of death in the cultural arena, is something that cannot be entirely explained in terms of a subject-oriented psychology, nor can it be entirely controlled and folded into the workings of fundamental ontology. _M_ is a cinematic illustration of the fact that the orders of language, creative discourse, and discursive reason can never grasp death as anything but an absence that marks the limit of human discourse. As such death provides the frame for human discourse, but death, as a marker for the infinite, cannot be translated into the finite realm of human cognition. For good reason representing and interrogating this limit is often the central project of both philosophical inquiry and artistic production. The instructive caution that _M_ offers in this regard is simply that these efforts are ipso facto conditioned to fail. _M_ illustrates that any representation of death, from the word to film, is not the being of death but rather a marker for the absence of both death and life. Actual dead bodies fall into this category as well. The corpse is the paradigmatic case for the problem of representation of death. Perhaps even more so than any artistic or conceptual representation of death, a corpse is both neither alive nor entirely dead, in as far as it represents the remnant of a former presence. Both the actual corpse and artificial aesthetic and conceptual representations of death operate in a liminal semiotic terrain between life and death.


The inherent impossibility of representing death is exactly what makes the various attempts to come to terms with it, make sense of it, ontologize or sentimentalize it, both compelling and repugnant. The resulting struggle, the always-hopeless struggle to negotiate death through representation, gives birth to discourses that are often unparalleled in their intensity and cultural significance. This struggle is precisely what gives _M_ its cinematic intensity. Death becomes in _M_ the quintessential topic without a topos and thereby elevates the film to a degree of conceptual sophistication that defies the labels prurient and sensationalistic, which were initially levelled at it by critics. _M_ calls into sharp relief the impossibility of representing death and thus fixing death within the order of reason. Marking this limit is something that film, as a medium, can accomplish more effectively than perhaps any other discourse. Although saturated with an atmospherics of death and with a constant, explicit thematization of death, _M_ manages to abandon the usual cinematic methods for representing death. At this register it lays bare the basic paradox at work, either consciously or unconsciously, in any representation of death. _M_ exposes the limits of representation and simultaneously brings about an intensification and sharpening of the artistic effort to represent death. It does this not just by rejecting representation, but also by laying bare the structural impossibilities that adhere in its representation. The film's method -- non-representative representation -- thereby casts critical light upon the practice of representation in the broadest sense of the term.


This calling into question of the practice of representation is made possible through the attention _M_ gives to its own cinematic materiality. The principle method that the film uses to highlight its own materiality is the still shot. Thus _M_ self-consciously enacts the dialectical tension between photograph and film. Throughout _M_ the still shot works to reiterate the presence of death through the absence of presence. The opening frame, a frame of black space, is a case in point. Other obvious examples are the balloon mentioned above and the still shot of the empty table setting where a murdered child was supposed to return for dinner. _M_'s enactment of the dialectical tension between photography and film is indicative of a larger theoretical problematic that adheres in the very materiality of any and every film. The essence of this tension lies in the fundamental ambivalence that is intrinsic to the supposed objectivity of the images that are captured on film. To paraphrase Andre Bazin, the photographic image captures its subject and embalms it. In this way, while the subject is given a kind of after-life in the film, it's essential, original being is displaced by a mechanical reproduction of the original. [17] Thus the framing of the subject is both a giving and a taking of life. This basic ambivalence and tension adheres in all filmic representation. This problematic was given expression in Bazin's 1945 essay 'The Ontology of the Photographic Image':


'Hence the charm of family albums. Those grey or sepia shadows, phantomlike and almost undecipherable, are no longer traditional family portraits but rather the disturbing presence of lives halted at a set moment in their duration, freed from their destiny; not, however, by the prestige of art but by the power of a mechanical process: for photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.


'Viewed in this perspective, the cinema is objectivity in time. The film is no longer content to preserve the object, enshrouded as it were in an instant, as the bodies of insects are preserved intact out of the distant past, in amber. The film delivers baroque art from its convulsive catalepsy. Now for the first time, the image of things is likewise the image of their duration, change mummified as it were.' [18]


At this point, with Bazin's observations in mind, it should be apparent that in order to understand the role of death in _M_ we must tie the conceptual terrain in which the film operates to its materiality. Analysis of the content of the film has to be put aside, at least momentarily, in order to read the film at this register. Analyzing the use of actual representations of death is less important than excavating the material out of which these representations are moulded. The ambivalence that Bazin points to in the passage above illustrates that film as a medium is more inherently bound, at the structural level, to the representation of death than any other media. This is a simple result of the fact that all film, whether photography or cinema, is a permanent and apparently objective framing of the object at hand. Whether or not the frame is a single motionless moment in time, as in photography, or the framing of movement and time together, as in film, does not change the fundamental fact that the object is thus framed and preserved. Each event of framing and preservation acts as a simultaneous taking and giving of life. Siegfried Kracauer in his short essay of 1927, 'Photography', was one of the very first critics to notice this fundamental ambivalence intrinsic to photograph: 'In the illustrated magazines the world has become a photographable present, and the photographed present has been entirely eternalized. Seemingly ripped from the clutch of death, in reality it has succumbed to it.' [19]


The tension between the life-giving and the life-denying properties is the basic structural paradox inherent in all film. This tension drives film, in its innermost cells, again and again to the topic of death. I do not think that the question as to whether or not the materiality of film acts to deny or preserve life can be answered negatively or positively in any absolute sense. Certainly most critics who have entertained this question, Kracauer among them, have tended to answer in the negative. In fact the tendency among theorists of photography and film is to view filmic representation as a sort of theft of the aura or the authentic being of the original. This theft can be seen as a kind of ontological erasure. But the framing of the question in binary terms, as both Bazin and Kracauer do, is less than faithful to _M_'s logic of non-objective representation. In order to avoid viewing film as a bringing forth of a multitude of small deaths, we need to allow the ambivalence that is inscribed in the materiality of film -- the tension that it calls forth between the life-giving and life-taking properties of representation -- to remain detached from any fixed, absolute meaning.


University of California, Berkeley





1. I don't think it would be going too far to say that this impossibility is one of the central problems in aesthetic discourse in general. At a very basic level any attempt at the representation of something, whether the representation be performed in film, language, gesture, paint, stone, etc., is caught in the paradox that I describe here. The attempt to give a thing life through representation brings about its death. This is a consequence of the fact that the effort to translate something from one medium into another carries with it a double mark of absence and mummification. This mark is constituted in the fact that the thing represented is no longer present, representation being fundamentally an indication of the absence of the thing and an attempt to freeze that absence at a moment in time. At this basic level all representation is inherently a mummification of the thing represented in as far as representation performs a freezing of things at a moment in time. Thus the basis of representation is a delivering of the thing represented to its death. In a dialectical fashion this small death of the thing is also a delivering of the thing to the threshold of a very different sort of life.


2. See for example Kazimir Malevich's suprematism and in particular his theoretical tract, _The Non-objective World_.


3. My discussion of death as trope owes a debt to the work of Elisabeth Bronfen. See in particular Chapter 2 of _Over Her Dead Body_: 'Death the Epitome of Trope'. Also of particular interest is the Introduction to the anthology, _Death and Representation_, edited by Elisabeth Bronfen and Sarah Webster Goodwin.


4. Husserl, 'Fichte's Ideal of Humanity', p. 112.


5. See 'Thoughts for the Times on War and Death' (1915).


6. Horkheimer, 'The End of Reason', p. 26.


7. This discussion of the troubled status of reason after WWI owes a debt to several sources. Chief among those are several works by the Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Along with 'The End of Reason' quoted above, the most obvious is _The Dialectic of Enlightenment_, in particular the first chapter, 'The Concept of Enlightenment', and Excursus II, 'Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality'. Another key essay in understanding the Frankfurt School critique of reason and instrumental rationality is Adorno's 'The Schema of Mass Culture' (1936).


8. Adorno and Horkheimer, _Dialectic of Enlightenment_, p. 38.


9. Another piece that is very helpful is Bernd Hueppauf's Prologue to the collection _Essays on Mortality_. Hueppauf provides a concise summary of the relationship of death and reason, particularly in its post-WWI manifestation.


10. Of course the Enlightenment was never without its critics. The claim here is not that there was a monolithic agreement of belief in reason and rationality. Hamann and Nietzsche, among others, could be said to be early critics of the Enlightenment project and reason as such. The point remains valid nevertheless: reason, as a cultural and philosophical social glue, lost the basis for its moral justification in the face of WWI.


11. Freud, 'Thoughts for the Times on War and Death', p. 299.


12. The examples cross all disciplinary and cultural boundaries and they are too numerous to cite here. Just to illustrate the degree to which death was central to the times, a few obvious instances are as follows. In philosophy and psychoanalysis there was Freud's 'Thoughts for the Times on War and Death' (1915) and 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle' (1920), Martin Heidegger's _Being and Time_ (1927), Franz Rosenzweig's _The Star of Redemption_ (1918), Walter Benjamin's _The Origin of the German Tragic Drama_ (1927), and Ernst Bloch's _Geist der Utopie_ (1918). Examples in literature from the time period where death is given a leading role can be seen in Doeblin, Kafka, Junger, T. Mann, Hesse, Zweig, and many others.


13. The out-of-field is a term is borrowed from Gilles Deleuze's _Cinema_. I will make further use of it and clarify its applicability to _M_ in just a moment.


14. Deleuze, _Cinema 1_, pp. 16-17.


15. Foucault, _The History of Sexuality_, p. 138.


16. These rather inadequate summaries of Freud and Heidegger are not meant to say anything substantive about the two thinkers. Such an effort would require a great deal more space than is available here. Rather, I want to provide merely an indication, in very broad terms, of two of the conceptual positions that were dominant in around the time of _M_. Such a broad characterization allows us to fix more precisely the contributions that the film makes with regard to contemporary discourses surrounding death.


17. Perhaps the first place to go when addressing this problem is Walter Benjamin's famous essay 'The Art Work in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. My comments here owe a debt to his work.


18. Bazin, 'The Ontology of the Photographic Image', pp. 14-15.


19. Kracauer, 'Photography', p. 59.





Adorno, Theodor, 'The Schema of Mass Culture', in J. M. Bernstein, ed., _The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture_ (London: Routledge, 1991).


Adorno, Theodor, and Horkheimer, Max, _Dialectic of Enlightenment_ (1947), trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1990).


Bazin, Andre, 'The Ontology of the Photographic Image', in _What is Cinema?_, Volume 1, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).


Benjamin, Walter, 'The Art Work in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', trans. Harry Zohn, in Hannah Arendt, ed., _Illuminations_ (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1968).


Bronfen, Elisabeth, _Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity, and the Aesthetic_ (New York: Routledge, 1992).


Bronfen, Elisabeth, and Webster, Sarah, eds, _Death and Representation_ (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).


Deleuze, Gilles, _Cinema 1: The Movement-Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).


Foucault, Michel, _The History of Sexuality_, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980).


Freud, Sigmund, _Thoughts for the Times on War and Death_ (1915), trans. A. A. Brill and Alfred B. Kuttner (New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1968).


Heidegger, Martin, _Being and Time_ (1927), trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper, 1962).


Horkheimer, Max, 'The End of Reason', in Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, eds, _The Essential Frankfurt School Reader_ (New York: Continuum, 1982).


Hueppauf, Bernd, 'Death in the History of Ideas in Western Civlization', in Mira Crouch and Bernd Hueppauf, eds, _Essays on Mortality_ (Kensington: University of New South Wales Press, 1985).


Husserl, Edmund, 'Fichte's Ideal of Humanity: Three Lectures', _Husserl Studies_ no. 12, 1995.


Kaes, Anton, 'The Cold Gaze: Notes on Mobilization and Modernity', _New German Critique_, no. 59, 1993.


Kracauer, Siegfried, _The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays_, ed. and trans. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995).


Malevich, Kazimir, _The Non-objective World_ (1924), trans. Howard Dearstyne (Chicago: Theobald Press, 1959).



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004.



Joel Freeman, 'The Semiosis of Death in Lang's _M_: Film and the Limits of Representation in the Weimar Republic', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 5, February 2004 <>.



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