Credit: Vereinigte Star-Film GmbH

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Joseph Owen

Prison, at the very least, offers clarity for its inmates. This is the abiding message of William Faulkner’s 1939 novel, The Wild Palms, formed of two tales, intercut chapter by chapter. “Wild Palms” centres on Harry and Charlotte, who escape their mundane and unfulfilling lives by bouncing across America, in pursuit of heady idealism and earthly pleasures. It ends with Harry killing Charlotte in a bungled abortion procedure and facing a lengthy custodial sentence. “Old Man”, meanwhile, features a tall convict, commanded by the local authorities to rescue a pregnant woman on the flooded Mississippi River. During the dangerous and circuitous route, the nameless delinquent longs for the order of the penal system. 

Aside from Faulkner’s effortful weave of themes and rhythms, it is the final setting of Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary of Mississippi, that unites the storylines. Harry rejects a cyanide pill in one of its cells, famously choosing grief over nothing, and the tall convict acquiesces to increased jail time on his voluntary return, content with life in a regulated institution. Faulkner suggests in both instances that these characters only have the illusion of choice. Within the safety of confinement, where physical liberty is contained or withheld, the mind devises its own freedoms.

In M (1931), co-written and directed by Fritz Lang, questions of choice and freedom throb impudently beneath the surface. In the climactic scene, set in a disused distillery, hosting a kangaroo court composed of Berlin’s nefarious underworld, Peter Lorre’s blazing, ocular child murderer, Hans Beckert, pleads his innocence on the grounds of compulsion and by gesturing towards the hypocrisies of his captors:  

What right have you to speak? Criminals! Perhaps you are even proud of yourselves! Proud of being able to crack into safes, or climb into buildings, or cheat at cards. All of which, it seems to me, you could just as easily give up, if you had learned something useful, or if you had jobs, or if you were not such lazy pigs. I cannot help myself! I have no control over this evil thing that is inside me—the fire, the voices, the torment!

Hans, understandably, would rather face the civilized judgment of the Weimar court. Fortune bursts in from behind us. The police arrive in time before the mob smothers him, and the closing moments show the precipice of a judicial verdict, followed by a direct-to-camera appeal from one of the bereaved mothers, tearfully imploring the audience “to keep closer watch over the children.” The viewer is left to speculate on the relative justice of events, which goads a preference between the prongs of the pitchfork and the promises of state rehabilitation.

Yet the ruminating, philosophical discussions on law and morality are mostly secondary in Faulkner’s text and Lang’s film, because both employ strikingly comparable innovations in storytelling to structure their respective narratives. For Faulkner, the separate stories function as counterpoints, whereby one alternately brings the other up to pitch. Woven together, they encourage the reader to detect a textured pattern that feeds the dialectic of escape and imprisonment. The dual structure of the novel invites connections between the characters’ assorted pleas for autonomy and subservience, bringing into relief broader questions about the nature of private selfhood and sovereign authority. That, and Faulkner thought the stories too weak on their own terms, requiring some crude formal trickery to beef up the various melodramas. Through sonic semantics—the self-coined use of “counterpoint”—his blunt creative decision took on a faintly orchestral murmur, as something to lift it.

Lang uses a cinematic cousin of literary counterpoint, parallel editing, to persuasive and disturbing effect. While allowing Hans’ whistling of Edvard Grieg to thread itself through the plot as an operatic leitmotif, indicating the presence of evil, Lang also deployed a version of cross-cutting to show simultaneous actions in different locations. Memorably, this technique frames the early demise of schoolgirl Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut), the first and only victim afforded to the viewer. As the camera tracks Elsie’s encounter with Hans, the film variously cuts to her mother’s kitchen, the empty place at the dinner table, a ball rolling along grass, and a balloon floating past a set of power lines. The sequence starts from a perch of ominous irony, before swooping down into the dreaded act itself, suggested only through images of human absence rather than those of graphic violence. Lang reapplies this style of editing for comic purposes: to mirror against one another the combustible debates of lawless gangs and local enforcement, both of whom wish to end the social instability inflicted by the killer’s reign of terror. 

Endless streams of shallow focus, in opulent lairs and austere offices, suggest the fear and confusion Hans has wrought upon the city, which by contrast is rendered throughout in detailed plans and blueprints. Both Faulkner and Lang placed great value on mapping the geographies of their art, just as they were confounding conventional artistic processes. Faulkner produced elegant geometric drawings of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, wherein many of his novels are situated. Lang’s interest in technologies, old and new, manifests itself on numerous occasions in M, through the multiple shots of road maps, traffic and transport networks, architectural designs, circuit systems and building layouts. By giving prominence to these tools of accuracy and precision, Lang sharply refocuses the disorder induced by Hans’ murderous spree, which transgresses all cultural norms and civic codes, legal or otherwise. 

The formal and thematic legacies of Lang and Faulkner stretch across cinematic culture, exemplified by their sedimentary appearances in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). Its jump cuts and discontinuities, common to characterizations of the French New Wave, echo Lang’s startling use of parallel editing. Faulkner’s presence in Godard’s film is even more explicit. In a scene of entwined lovers, Patricia (Jean Seberg) quotes in wistful cadence the immortal line about grief and nothing to budding felon, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo). His fair rejoinder, which discards guilt for volition, undercuts the logical fallacies of Harry and the tall convict, and the ethical conundrums disputed by Hans and the baying mob. Why embrace incarceration and, in doing so, shoulder an eternal burden of despair? Michel doesn’t consider this to be particularly tricky. “Grief’s stupid, I’d choose nothing.”