Director : Fritz Land
Screenplay : Thea von Harbou & Fritz Lang
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1931
Stars : Peter Lorre (Hans Beckert), Otto Wernicke (Insp. Karl Lohmann), Ellen Widmann (Madame Beckmann), Inge Landgut (Elsie Beckmann), Theodor Loos (Police Commissioner Groeber), Gustaf Gründgens (Schraenker), Friedrich Gnaß (Franz), Fritz Odemar (Dynamiter), Paul Kemp (Pickpocket), Theo Lingen (Bauernfaenger), Rudolf Blümner (Becker’s barrister), Georg John (Blind beggar)
Fritz Lang’s M is one of the great film thrillers, a seminal exercise in combining suspense and social commentary. Its influence on world cinema is so far-ranging that it’s mind-numbing to try to trace it all. Suffice it to say that M is a prototypical masterpiece, possibly because it is the one film that Lang, a mad genius who loved making films about other mad geniuses, had complete control over from start to finish.
M is first and foremost about the time and place in which it is set: Berlin in the early 1930s, the last days of the Weimar Republic before the rise to power of the Nazi party. Social unease is written on every frame of the film, particularly given Lang’s use of the kinds of expressionistic visual details that would come to define film noir a decade and a half later. The film seems to take place entirely at night, and even though it was shot almost exclusively on sound stages, Lang creates the palpable feeling of a deep, sprawling urban environment, one that is all wet concrete and stone, dark alleys and maze-like buildings.
Lang melds personal psychosis with public trauma by focusing the story on a child murderer (Peter Lorre) and how his spree of killing throws the city into a frenzy of panic. Lang doesn’t attempt to generate suspense through hiding the killer’s identity; rather, we know the killer’s face within the first 10 minutes (introduced to us, not accidentally, as a reflection in a mirror). Instead, Lang relies on a constantly escalating sense of panic as the citizens of Berlin feel their control slipping away with each subsequent murder. The specter of the serial killer, something that hadn’t been explored on film before, is one that can always undermine any sense of order and civility. The idea of a loner able to live among us, yet commit acts of such horrible magnitude that we feel compelled to label him “monster,” subverts everything the modern city and the ability of the government to police it is all about.
Because the police have been unable to catch the murderer for eight months, they resort to nightly raids throughout the city. This upsets Berlin’s underworld of organized crime, whose business is constantly being disrupted. They realize that the police will continue to do this until the murderer is caught, so they take it upon themselves to hunt him down in order to protect their own interests. They enlist the thousands of beggars in Berlin to become a kind of intricate network of spies, constantly on the lookout for anything suspicious. M thus hinges on the idea of one kind of criminal hunting down another, which brings into question the whole notion of “crime” and what constitutes “legitimate” versus “illegitimate” activities outside the law. To the organized crime bosses, their world of extortion and thievery is acceptable and thus worth preserving, whereas the sexually inspired murder of small children is not.
M was Lang’s first sound film, which is obvious in the way he still relies heavily on visuals to tell his story. The film features virtuoso camerawork, including a stunning long-take crane shot that maneuvers throughout a building where the beggars spend their time drinking and playing cards, then moves up to the building’s second story and through a window where the police are busy registering people. It’s an astonishing visual feat, one that directors like Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese surely take as a model for how effective a fluid, roving camera can be in creating atmosphere and supplying the audience with visual information. Lang is also a master of using everyday objects to suggest off-screen action, never so powerfully as in the opening sequence when a rolling ball and a clownish balloon sadly caught in a power line inform us of a little girl’s death. He is also particularly clever in his editing, using match cuts and parallel actions to align the police with the organized criminals, thus visually connecting enemies in a common cause.
M was clearly a film ahead of its time, particularly in its empathic depiction of Hans Beckert, the child murderer. Rather than being a simplistic villain, Beckert is depicted as a man at war with himself, which is made explicit in his pathetic pleadings to the kangaroo court the underworld subjects him to at the end of the film.
Lang and his coscreenwriter, then-wife Thea von Harbou, structured the film around the worst crime they could imagine—the murder of children—yet they refuse to demonize the perpetrator. Whereas most serial killer figures in the movies are either horrifically charming geniuses (e.g., Hannibal Lecter) or deranged lunatics (e.g., virtually any slasher film), Hans is a three-dimensional human being who can be separated from his awful deeds; in fact, the anguish of his life is that disjuncture between how he views himself and what he actually does, which makes him want to be captured. Much of the power of Hans’ character is directly attributable to Peter Lorre’s outstanding performance, which centers on the gravitas of his anguished humanity (unfortunately, much like Anthony Perkins’ complex work as Norman Bates in Psycho, it was a role that would haunt Lorre via simplified typecasting for the rest of his life).
Hans is a marginal figure for most of the film, originally introduced as a menacing shadow, but once he has been caught and dragged into the court proceedings, we see him as a frightened animal, not unlike the naïve children who are his victims, which is further emphasized by Lorre’s small, squat stature and round, boyish face. Hans is both criminal and victim, and we don’t need to hear any elaborate psychoanalytic explanations for his psychosis to feel pity for a man whose own mind is out of his control.
|M Criterion Collection Double-Disc DVD Set|
|Audio||German Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||December 7, 2004|
|What a revelation. The new high-definition transfer on this disc, which is the second time Criterion has released M on DVD, was taken from a 35mm fine-grain print struck from the original negative, which was restored in 2000, two years after Criterion’s initial release. The difference between the two transfers is like night and day, and the original one wasn’t that bad. First off, the new transfer maintains M’s correct aspect ratio of 1.19:1, which results in slight pillarboxing. The previous 1.33:1 transfer was incorrect, although it was certainly representative of the way the film has been seen outside of Europe for the past 75 years. The restoration work done on the negative, coupled with further digital clean-up after the transfer was made, has resulted in an incredibly clean, sharp, and detailed image. Contrast is excellent and black levels are superb, particularly for a film of this age. Because the original negative was of a 96-minute version of the film, scenes from other prints have been spliced in to fill out the running time to 110 minutes. Some of these scenes are in notably lesser condition, although none of them look terrible by any means. All in all, an excellent transfer that truly makes this new edition worth a purchase.|
|The soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the original audio track, and its age and the general lack of technical refinement inherent in Lang’s first sound film certainly come through. Digital restoration has removed a lot of hissing and pops, but there is still some obvious ambient hiss from time to time. Nevertheless, I can’t image that the soundtrack could be made to sound any better than it does, and it certainly reflects what audiences heard at the film’s premiere in 1931.|
|While Criterion’s original 1998 DVD of M was a bare-bones affair, they have commissioned a range of supplements to fill out this new edition into a two-disc set. The first disc features an audio commentary by two German film scholars, Anton Kaes, author of the BFI Film Classics volume on M, and Eric Rentschler, a Harvard professor and author of The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife. The track starts out very slowly, with quite a bit of dead space, but it pick up soon thereafter. It’s never quite as engaging as you hope it would be, especially when you consider the combined expertise of Kaes and Rentschler. Their comments tends to be more about the social and cultural implications of the film, with very little discussion of actual technique. |
The second disc contains a range of supplements, starting with Conversation With Fritz Lang, a 50-minute film by William Friedkin (The French Connection). The effect M has had on other filmmakers is illustrated with the inclusion of M le maudit, a film directed by Claude Charbol that was inspired by M, along with an interview with Charbol. Another fascinating inclusion is a series of audio lectures given by M editor Paul Falkenberg discussing editing the film, as well as an interview with Harold Nebenzal, son of M producer Seymour Nebenzal. A Physical History of M is probably the most intriguing new supplement, as it traces the ways in which M has been changed over the years, including the Nazis’ ridiculous attempts to co-opt scenes from it to bolster their arguments for persecuting the Jews. This section also includes a comparison of the newly restored transfer with the older one. Finally, there is a stills galleries of photos and production sketches and a 32-page booklet with an essay by film critic Stanley Kauffman, a 1963 interview with Lang, the script for a missing scene, and contemporaneous newspaper articles, including one written by Lang and one written by an anonymous member of Berlin’s criminal underworld. Fascinating stuff.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection