“It Has Come to My Ears”: Fritz Lang’s Sound Design

When Giorgio Moroder offered the world his music-enhanced version of Metropolis (Germany, 1926) in 1984, the publicity materials contained, as if in justification, this remark by the film’s director, Fritz Lang: “I was primarily a visual artist. I never had an ear, and I regret it”. Lang sometimes modestly presented himself in interviews as a director essentially formed in the visual aesthetic of the silent era, someone who had adapted uneasily to the era of the talkies.

Yet most film histories record specific innovations and inventions in the realm of sound associated with Lang: the linking of cops and criminals in different spaces via lines of dialogue that continue or answer each other in M (Germany, 1931); the desolate off-screen cry of a mother (“Elsie!”) over the image of a balloon among telephone wires in the same film; the aggressive, industrial noises in Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse(Germany, 1932); the ironic use of popular standards in the Hollywood films, such as My Melancholy Baby in Scarlet Street (US, 1944) …

Obviously, we cannot take Lang at his gentlemanly word when he protests about his bad ear. But nor can we remain content with merely celebrating isolated sound effects or juxtapositions in his work. I propose that really to hear Lang’s films is to uncover a coherent, global, systematic approach to the use of sound in cinema.

Lang’s modesty over the calibre of his ear may have contributed to the relative neglect, until quite recently, of sound in his oeuvre. The level of complexity and brilliance in Lang’s work has been insufficiently grasped. Beyond the visual bias that has long held back the study of mise en scène, creating a sort of pervasive deafness in film criticism, it is also the case that even some of the most advanced and perceptive approaches to film sound today are ill-equipped really to take account of what Lang achieved.

In the American industry, articulate technical creators such as Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now [US, 1979]) and Randy Thom (Contact [US, 1997]) have done much to raise awareness of the role of sound, advancing the idea that overall plots and specific actions should be conceptualised, from the outset, as sound events, phenomena that generate sound and bring it into play in a dynamic way. In a sense, Murch and Thom have arrived at their own reformulation of Robert Bresson’s famous advice in Notes on the Cinematographer: “When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralise it.”[1]  These accounts by practitioners, however, still prime us mainly to notice particular, obvious, often exhibitionist uses of sound in cinema, such as the surreal assemblages of noise in David Lynch; the cutting-edge uses of Dolby and multi-channel sound technology in Francis Coppola or Oliver Stone; the counterpoint of popular songs to narrative events in Martin Scorsese or Abel Ferrara; or the controlled cacophony of post-synchronised and narrating voices in Orson Welles.

To appreciate Lang’s sound, we must key our listening into a more pervasive, cumulative and subtle level, and begin to hear the entire ensemble of sounds, whether generated as music, speech or noise. The film industry today has a useful term for this ensemble: sound design. And the practice of sound design, in the best examples and the most significant auteurs (Jacques Tourneur, Jean-Luc Godard, Terrence Malick, Chantal Akerman), has always been far in advance of the theorisation of film sound.

A way to conjure the essential sound ambience of Lang’s films is to propose a little-explored comparison: Lang and Ernst Lubitsch. There is at least one historical coincidence that links these two masters: it was Lubitsch who first acquired the Hollywood rights to the Georges de la Fouchardière novel Poor Sap that Jean Renoir first filmed as La Chienne (France, 1931) and Lang remade as Scarlet Street. And another coincidence, from the annals of criticism: when critic-filmmaker Jean-Louis Comolli and historian François Géré analysed “two fictions of hate” concerning Nazism in wartime, the films they selected were Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! (US 1943) and Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be (US, 1944).[2] One could argue that Lang and Lubitsch, apparently so different on the levels of genre and sensibility, share affinities on the levels of narrative form (stories built from intensive, minute, gradually modulating repetitions), mise en scène (in the sense of a theatrically-inspired form of staging based on entries, exits, character groupings and small but decisive reframings of the camera), and overall sound design.

Fundamentally, Lang and Lubitsch are drawn to the same kind of primal situation: whether bedroom farce for Lubitsch or chamber drama for Lang, it is in both cases a matter of stories told primarily in interiors – rooms, corridors, houses, doorways. The action is knitted from characters forever darting in and out of doorways, hiding under beds or around corners, dispatching letters or prying into mysterious messages left lying about. In these interiors, the intrigue often springs from an uncanny disturbance of a familiar or domestic space, like a hat or a key which is out of place, something noticed by the one who is being deceived, manipulated or betrayed.

Sound is central to this shared scenography. Words and sentences are repeated in a merry rondo across the films, circulated from one character to another. Editing patterns are often built upon the structures of the spoken words: in Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow (US, 1934), the name “Dan-i-lo” is broken into three shots and three syllables, each spoken by a different woman in close-up. Words become sounds, noises, tokens to be repeated, chanted and varied – as with “jeepers” and “for cat’s sake” or the various character names and nicknames in Scarlet Street.[3] The preferred form of dialogue is sparse and spare, full of monosyllabic exclamations and interjections which direct attention and can switch the drama of a scene around.

A certain sort of diegetic music is ubiquitous in the films of both directors: jingles, folk tunes, nursery rhymes, chants, Christmas carols, pop and classical standards – music that is always just out the window, on the street, coming from vendors, barkers, waiters, beggars and drunks. This is a form of mundane, daily muzak mindlessly sung, hummed or whistled by the principal characters as they fatefully but obliviously wander through doorways and into parlours – often inadvertently revealing or channeling what is most deeply, secretly on their minds. Cliché music, like Gilles Deleuze’s cliché images:

… floating images, these anonymous clichés, which circulate in the external world, but which also penetrate each one of us and constitute his internal world, so that everyone possesses only psychic clichés by which he thinks and feels, is thought and is felt, being himself a cliché among the others in the world which surrounds him. Physical, optical and auditory clichés and psychic clichés mutually feed on each other.[4]

Thus, the music and speech combine to define a world of values, roles and stereotypes, a soundscape that absorbs its characters, providing the very air that they breath, marking the space of the social. A sensorium of small sounds constitutes the endless and inescapable drone of everyday life as presented and criticised by Lang and Lubitsch: one needs to listen for doors opening and closing, footsteps, endless telephone calls, characters casually whistling or bouncing a ball.

How does Lang organise these sounds into the ensemble that comprises the form and meaning of an entire film? This question will be approached in two stages: first, in terms of the basic structures of Lang’s sound design, and second, in terms of the poetic effects and resonances that this design engenders.

Lang’s sound design works according to two, overlapping principles. First, particular sounds are turned into singular sound events through being isolated, featured, subtly highlighted within a scene. For instance, the second scene of Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, after Hofmeister (Karl Meixner) escapes into the street, gives us a veritable musique concrète of specific, singular, dramatic produced noises marked by the silent pauses that separate them (to the point of suppressing certain natural sounds, such as Hofmeister walking and running): an idling truck motor that revs before the vehicle exits frame; a crashing object; a rolling barrel; and finally an explosion. From this sound, we pass, by association, to the first word of the film, equally explosive and dramatic in its utterance: “Feuerzauber” (fireball).

Second, these sounds are organised so as to cue, link and unfold actions – as a dominant means of effecting cinematic transitions of every sort, both within scenes (Lang often structures reaction shots as responses to a sound event) and across scenes. In the silent Spione (1928), much of this sound design system was already in place – sound events in the form of inserted images of whistling kettles, rattling cups, train wheels, gunshots and doors opening (creating a virtual soundtrack of great complexity) structured into the action a way of articulating and linking shots, as montage cues.

As an extended example, consider a three-minute segment of Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, about half an hour into the film. After a dialogue between Dr. Baum (Oskar Beregi) and Dr. Kramm (Theodor Loos), there is a cut to the door of the study: Baum’s butler is eavesdropping. Within this quite frontal, proscenium arch frame, a series of actions follows. Kramm emerges from the study, the butler helps him on with his coat, the two men exit the frame and their farewell is heard from off-screen. Then the butler returns into the shot and enquires at the study door: Baum’s voice is heard from within, intoning “I don’t want to be disturbed” – and first-time viewers of the film will not figure out until much later, when we hear the same words spoken in exactly the same way, that the butler is in fact hearing a phonograph recording.

Cut to the downstairs section of this wealthy house (Lang establishes the location with typical economy: one shot). A driver answers the ringing phone, and repeats the details of a number plate, pressing a buzzer as he does so. An insert flashes up of that number plate on the back of a moving car – and, like many of Lang’s cutaways in this rich period just before and after the coming of sound, it could easily be either a real, objective image or a pure mental projection out of the driver’s head. The two men we have seen in the course of this shot then head off in a car in pursuit of Kramm.

A swift action set-piece follows – one that surely influenced the traffic jam finale of Ferrara’s King of New York(1990). Lang cuts between the two cars in motion, creating a musical comparison between two motor sounds. Many cars, including these two, stop at a crossing. There are car horns honking randomly and softly. The driver of the pursuing car begins honking his horn, which immediately starts a contagion of blaring noises. Kramm, rather gleefully, joins in as well, pushing out a dinky rhythmic beat. The man who took the phone instructions raises his gun and aims: when he fires, although it is visible in the centre of the frame, there is no registered, audible gun sound in the midst of the car horn cacophany. All cars except Kramm’s move on; a policeman finds him dead at the wheel, with a bullet hole in the back window. As the cop opens the car door, the front page of a newspaper that Kramm earlier showed Baum falls onto the street. Fade out.

There is an impressive range of functions allotted to sound in this segment of Das Testament. There is narrative intrigue, as with Baum’s voice behind the door. There are effects of suspense and dread – the off-screen farewell for Kramm strikes us as an ominous forecast of his imminent death. There is colour or felicitous detailing in the comparison of sounds from shot to shot and space to space: the two car motors (a sound design idea seized on by George Miller in his Mad Max series).[5] The most daring idea underlying the action set-piece rests upon a sound concept worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, Dario Argento or Roman Polanski: the fatal sound of the gun is covered up by the staging of a car horn wall of noise.

Perhaps less immediately obvious, but even more crucial to the fine texture and logic of Lang’s holistic narrative form, is the almost obsessive manner in which virtually every action, every plot link, every shot is driven forward, articulated or progressively stitched together by gestures involving sound. These gestures are numerous and manifold (a true testament to Lang’s fertile inventiveness): eavesdropping, phone calls, buzzers, horns. Sound, for Lang, is a vital relay: it helps create the circulation of elements, the transmission of information, bodies and various viruses of menace or agents of death; and it bridges the distance between spaces and places (eg, the series of telephone calls that opens Lang’s The Big Heat [US, 1953].) Within such a filmic system, dialogue undergoes radical transformations, in comparison with its more conventionally theatrical and expository functions: when not elided altogether in favour of noise effects, it is deployed by Lang variously as babble, music, monosyllabic interjection – either atmosphere or sonic sign (as with Baum’s phonographic utterance).

Sound designers such as Murch and Thom encourage the directors they work with to build dramatic possibilities for sound-structuring from the very outset of conceptualising a film, at the most fundamental levels of the scenario. Lang already understood this, completely, at the dawn of the 1930s. Michel Chion discusses the paradoxical place of Mabuse as the nominal centre of the elaborate criminal intrigue traced out by the film: he is silent and his voice is actually Baum’s, but we never see the latter making any of the recordings that convince others he is Mabuse – so various investigative characters have a hard time piecing together this scattered mosaic of bodies, voices and names. “There is no Mabuse: he is this name without identity, this body without voice, this voice without place”[6] – anticipating Nicole Brenez’s insight that, in Das Testament, “the figure of Evil is dispersed: it can no longer be assigned a body, for it has become an idea which transmits itself”.[7]

If one were to pick a single moment to sum up the strange, disquieting, poetic tension created by Lang’s sound design, it would be the scene in Secret Beyond the Door … (US, 1948) where Celia (Joan Bennett) is walking in the streets of Mexico. A blood-curdling scream is heard from off-screen and Celia turns to look. Lang then cuts to a momentarily frozen tableau vivant: two men with knives are poised to fight to the death over a woman. A strong sound-event (the scream) is answered by stasis and absence in the image (the violent action has already taken place).

This unusual dialectic is at the heart of Lang’s unique fusion of narrative and form, image and sound. In Lang’s cinema, there are many key violent, traumatic events – murders, deaths, especially suicides – that are left unseen. But they are heard: often, an off-screen sound (such as a gunshot) suffices to indicate the act. Of course, many films routinely use this device. But Lang attenuates and abstracts the technique, to the point of producing a compelling figural inversion. In a Lang film, while off-screen death always carries a noise, on-screen violence is invariably, eerily silent (as in Cloak and Dagger [US, 1946], The Woman in the Window [US, 1944] and House by the River [US, 1950]). The emblem of this paradoxical logic is the gunshot that is not heard while it is seen in Das Testament.

What is remarkable in Lang is that the partly hidden or veiled events registered at their moment of occurrence only in off-screen sound are invariably at the centre of an extraordinary web of before-and-after actions that take up a great deal of screen time and painstaking attention. There are few deaths in Lang that are not the object of extensive preparation on the part of the characters (plans, travelling, co-ordination, precise choreography) and an equally elaborate aftermath (evidence collecting, tests, reports, discussions, media broadcasts). Lang’s American biographer Patrick McGilligan remarks that the director’s interest in “up-to-date police procedural details” often reached a “point of near excess”.[8] But we can interpret this excess as something fundamental to the cinema according to Lang.

Noël Burch evokes, in relation to Das Testament, “the sense of a mechanism whose workings are as inexorable as they are constantly varied”.[9] A central, virtually cybernetic aspect of the Lang-machine is the way in which signals are passed from one part of its structure to another. This is something that both the film itself does (its way of getting from shot to shot to shot, scene to scene, place to place), and something it uses as the very substance of the plot and the defining activities of characters.

These signals, within the fiction, take the form of written or recorded information, coded messages, directives, maps, tools, keys. More than anything else, they are signs, traces or texts, treacherously unstable (as with Spione’s invisible ink) and forever mediated – quite literally mediated, when it is a matter of (as is so frequent in these films) versions of violent events constructed and disseminated by the mass media (newspapers, radio, film and television). There is no central act in a Lang film that is not both meticulously foreseen (hence, in Das Testament, the killer’s mental projection of the license plate) and, once it has taken place, instantly converted into some form of news which invites speculation (after Kramm’s body is discovered, we linger upon a bullet hole and a newspaper).

The physical passage of a sign, trace or text – its progressive stations – is mapped in many and various ways in Lang’s cinema. Written messages have to be passed from room to room, office to office, via various intermediaries. The inscribed window has to be removed from its initial site and transplanted into a laboratory. Documents are transported by vehicles, couriers, tubes (and can be hijacked along the way). Electronic messages travel along cables and end up on all manner of screens. Voices are recorded and then transcribed or pressed onto disk. Evidence is spied through doorways and windows, in the next building or on an adjacent train. It is upon these geographical, architectural and virtual broadcasting itineraries that Lang builds the rigorous manner of his shots, scenes and transitions. An object, action or character travels its path, with themise en scène delineating each phase of the journey as singularly and economically as possible – hence the characteristic Langian conjunction of a camera which rarely moves with a plot that never stops hurtling forward.

Raymond Bellour once described the “inventory of maps, plans, letters, photographs, all the multifarious pointers which blaze a trail through Lang’s forty films”.[10] These pointers come in the form of sound as much as image. In Das Testament, such sounds are often mysterious, unsettling, the topic of speculation (as a criminal’s remark, “it has come to my ears”, well testifies): Hofmeister’s voice (in the darkness of the room where he is, and on the end of a telephone) progressing from ranting to silence and then insane, childlike song; or the slow, ominous ticking (the source of which is never discovered) in the room where Kent (Gustav Diessl) and Lilli (Wera Liessem) are trapped (in an audio pun, Lang cuts from this ticking to the sound of a criminal tapping his spoon on a boiled egg). Where the image-based intrigue and the sound-based intrigue of Das Testament finally and precisely merge is in the scene where the written words in the testament read by Baum inexorably transform themselves into the eerie voice of the spirit-monster Mabuse.

Poetic transformation of another sort is the soul of Moonfleet (1955). The film traces, on every level, a rite of passage for a young man (John Mohune) who is not yet himself, who looks for some reassurance and comfort, some model for his identity – and is mostly confronted by the terror and the constant inquisitions of a bleak social environment. Lang, as always, translates this thematic – in the terms of Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory, the entry into the Symbolic – into a precise formal relation of sound to image. In the late 1970s, Serge Daney proposed to Bill Krohn: “There are off-spaces and different ways of playing on them. There are off-spaces directed by the eye, and off-spaces directed by the ear. There is a way for the voice to block or give access to the image”.[11] He could well have been thinking of Moonfleet.

An early sequence of scenes gives a sense of Moonfleet’s intermeshing of story, theme and form. The boy’s initial journey through his new world is defined by sound: interruptions, mysteries, the rude questions and sonorous, lulling monologues of others. Music and singing are spookily borne by the wind, and backed by the omnipresent crashing waves of the nearby ocean. The sound perspective always rises and falls in terms of how close the camera is to the boy – this is a film where point-of-view (POV) is structured through sound more than image. In particular, Lang insistently, systematically finds ways to cut within his scenes on the cue of an off-screen sound – a staging technique which, beyond its expressive and poetic possibilities, was also a way for Lang to control the editing of his films even when (as was frequent, perhaps customary in the Hollywood studio system) the director’s work did not extend to an active presence in the editing room.

More profoundly, the social world or environment in Moonfleet is always impinging on the consciousness and the perceptions of the small hero. The world calls to him, and it is the sound of that world which always registers first, invading, wounding or seducing him from off-screen. The film’s drama is at every point a drama of sound. The boy enters, as so many Lang characters do, whistling and singing a song which instantly becomes the emblem of his identity, the trace of his past life in another, lost land. As a girl later points out to the boy, he “doesn’t talk much”. After he is shocked and loses consciousness, he wakes up encircled by an ugly band of brigands. From off-screen comes the question: “Where do you come from, boy?”

Such a question, in Lang, is neither innocent nor accidental. Lines like “what is your name?”, “who are you?” and “where are you from?” have a special significance in Lang’s films – because usually, it is precisely the hero, lost in some kind of labyrinth, who desperately seeks to answer these questions for himself.

This essay, which borrows and extensively reworks some material from an early piece on “Lang’s sound” in Philip Brophy (ed.), Cinesonic: Cinema and the Sound of Music (Sydney: Australian Film Television and Radio School, 2000), has previously appeared in a French translation in Trafic, no. 41 (Spring 2002), pp. 114-121; in Greek translation in Nikos Savvatis (ed.), Fritz Lang (Thessaloniki: Katsaniotis Editions, 2003), pp. 103-109; and in Spanish translation in the internet magazine Miradas de Cine (March 2006),http://www.miradas.net/2006/n48/estudio/articulo3.html. This is its first publication in its original English form.

© Adrian Martin 2002


[1]  Robert Bresson (trans. J. Griffin), Notes on the Cinematographer (London: Quartet Encounters, 1986), p. 51.
[2]  Jean-Louis Comolli and François Géré, “Deux fictions de la haine (1)”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 286 (March 1978), pp. 30-47; “Deux fictions de la haine (2)”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 288 (May 1978), pp. 5-15; ““Deux fictions de la haine (3)”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 290-291 (July-August 1978), pp. 90-98. The Lang  section (Part I) is translated by Tom Milne as “Two fictions concerning hate” in Stephen Jenkins (ed.), Fritz Lang: The Image and the Look (London: British Film Institute, 1981), pp. 125-146.
[3] See my close analysis of Scarlet Street forthcoming in a collection of essays on Lang edited by Douglas Pye.
[4] Deleuze, Cinema 1, pp. 208-9.
[5] See Adrian Martin, The Mad Max movies (Sydney: Currency Press/ScreenSound, 2003).
[6] Michel Chion, La Voix au cinéma (Cahiers du cinéma/Editions de l’etoile, 1982), p. 40.
[7] Nicole Brenez, De la figure en général et du corps en particulier. L’invention figurative au cinéma (Bruxelles: De Boeck, 1998), p. 125.
[8] Patrick McGilligan, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (London:  Faber and Faber, 1997), p. 166.
[9] Noël Burch, “Fritz Lang: German period”, in Roud (ed.), Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, p. 592.
[10] Raymond Bellour, “On Fritz Lang”, in Jenkins (ed.), p. 33.
[11] Serge Daney, “Les Cahiers du Cinéma1968-1977”, The Thousand Eyes, no. 2 (1977), p. 21.

Created on: Tuesday, 21 April 2009

About the Author

Adrian Martin

About the Author

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is an Australian-born film and arts critic living in Malgrat, Spain. He is the author of nine books since 1994, and thousands of articles and reviews since 1978. His website of writings is http://www.filmcritic.com.au.View all posts by Adrian Martin →