In the earliest years of the sound era (approx. 1928-1933), most films had a static, theatrical look. The most popular silent film cameras were too loud and had to be placed in a booth, anchored to one spot. Actors needed to lean in closely to speak into omni-directional mikes which were often hidden in vases or other centerpieces, as parodied brilliantly in the classic "Singing in the Rain." Amazed by the ability of the new technology simply to "make things heard", most directors laid it on thick, obsessed with making sound as realistic as possible.
"M", Fritz Lang´s first sound film, was shot in 1930, but looks nothing like most of its peers. The camera moves at will, gliding and craning through studio sets, creating an open, flowing, lyrical look for the movie. Lang, one of the great masters of silent cinema, was not interested in using the new technology merely to replicate reality; sound was no carnival sideshow gimmick for him. Rather, he used sound for dramatic effect, creating an expressionist sound design to enhance the narrative and the images. In fact, Lang´s first sound film contains quite a bit of silence, and the majority of the film was shot without sound equipment at all, setting the camera free to roam. Instead of the hum and rattle of a bustling city, we hear isolated sounds like footsteps, or the distant beeping of a car horn. These decisions combine to give the film a chilling, almost surreal soundtrack, at once hollow, brittle, and haunting.
As for the plot, you probably know the story by now. A child murderer stalks the streets of Berlin. In the opening sequences, he claims his newest victim, young Elsie Beckman, and the mother´s helpless, piercing cry of "Elsie!" still echoes into the new millennium.
The killer is Hans Beckert, played superbly by Peter Lorre is his first well-known role, though not, as many have claimed, his very first film role. Lorre´s nervous, jowly, bug-eyed killer seems ready to crawl out of his own flesh at any time. However, while Beckert commits monstrous crimes, the film depicts him not as a monster, but as a victim of his own weakness. Lang does not ask us to forgive the murderer, only to understand that he is a complex, flawed human being like the rest of us. He is a sad, isolated man, and as the city closes around this lone figure, it´s difficult not to feel some semblance of pity for him.
"M" is often described as the greatest "serial killer movie" of all-time. While this description seems a bit too lurid and simplistic to describe such a classic film, it´s also fairly accurate. In its day, "M" was viewed by critics and audiences alike as a film "torn from the headlines." Serial killer trials were all the rage in 1920s Germany. Lang´s movie closely parallels the case of Peter Kurten, the "Vampire of Dusseldorf", who held the country in a state of terror for months before his killing spree was finally ended. "M" was released after Kurten´s much-publicized trial, and just before his execution. "M" may seem like a timeless masterpiece today, but when it was released, it was viewed as very topical.
For lack of any alternative, we might consider Beckert the film´s protagonist, but he disappears into the background for much of the film. The rest of the movie cuts back and forth to numerous points of view, from ordinary citizens, to police, to the city´s most prominent underworld figures. Everyone gets caught up in the frenzy, and it´s easy to understand why the movie would later play on Germany television under the title "M: The City Hunts for a Murder." It is really the city itself, not any one person, who is the main character. The prolonged hunt, by cops and criminals alike, became the template for all the police procedurals that would follow, and we could probably trace a fairly straight line from "M" to contemporary TV shows like "Law and Order" and "CSI."
"M" is a masterpiece, perhaps the greatest film by one of film´s greatest directors. It continues to stimulate discussion and debate today, more than seventy years after its release. Was it really a warning against the rising influence of the Nazi party in Germany, or was it merely Lang´s attempt to restore his commercial reputation by making a topical potboiler? Surely, it´s both, and so much more.
"M" is responsible for some of the most memorable images and sequences in cinema history: a child´s ball rolling out of a bush, Lorre staring into the mirror at the letter "M" on his back, the chase through deserted nighttime streets, the raucous kangaroo court, and numerous others. If you have not yet seen "M", you do not yet know film.
I have been excessively enthusiastic thus far, so let me balance my praise with the harshest criticism I can muster for the film. "M" is not the greatest film of all time; it is merely one of the greatest. There, I´ve said it, and I´ll stand by it.
Criterion's first release of "M" (Spine Number 30) was one of its most disappointing early DVDs. They more than made up for it with a stellar 2004 SD re-release that provided a digitally restored transfer taken from the restored print that was released theatrically in 2003.
The transfer from the 2004 SD has seen yet another improvement in its upgrade to 1080p. The film is presented in its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio. The image might look a bit odd to viewers used to 1.33:1 and wider ratios. There are thin black bars on the sides rather than at the top and bottom, a process known as pillar boxing. Silent films had settled on a 1.33:1 ratio, but early sound films used an optical print which chopped off part of the image to make room for the soundtrack.
"M" had long been available in a multitude of incomplete and shoddy prints, and the 2003 theatrical version was both a "definitive" cut and the best image anyone had ever seen of the film since its initial release but the print is still not perfect. There are occasional flecks and scratches that can't be buffed out without destroying the integrity of the film. In 1080p, the detail is richer than in SD and the black and white contrast is sharp – look at some of those shadows standing out gloriously in high-def!
The DVD is presented in Linear PCM 1.0. A spare sound design is not necessarily a simple one, as I've already discussed, and appropriately reproducing the audio track of "M" is essential to appreciate its haunting quality. Some of the isolated effects sound distant or tinny even in PCM but they are supposed to. It's part of what makes "M" so glorious. The PCM track isn't a significant upgrade from the Dolby Digital of the SD release, but it's still an improvement.
Optional English language subtitles support the audio.
The original Criterion release had nothing besides those famous color bars, but the 2004 SD two-disc re-release was stacked with extras. The Blu-Ray imports all of them with an additional feature: the previously lost English-dubbed version of "M" that was released in the States in 1933. It is taken from a nitrate print preserved by the British Film Institute and features some newly shot scenes and runs at 93 minutes vs. the film's 110 min. running time. It's certainly of archival value but you will obviously want to stick with the original German version.
The rest of the features are duped from the 2004 SD release.
The film is accompanied by a commentary track by film scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler, both experts on German cinema. They play off each others' comments, sticking mostly to academic discourse. Your interest will depend on how much that appeals to you. No gossip here, just history and analysis. I like it a lot.
The rest of the extensive features include:
"Conversation with Fritz Lang."
A fifty minute excerpt from an interview conducted with Lang in 1975 by director William Friedkin. This is the crowning jewel of the collection. Lang, old but still razor sharp, looks like a character from his own movies, with his worn features and pirate eye patch. The discussion sticks mostly to "Metropolis" and "M." Friedkin´s contribution consists mostly of nodding and saying "Yes" from time to time. I´ve heard about this interview for years, but never got a chance to see it, and it justifies the entire purchase price of this DVD for any Lang fan.
"M le Maudit."
Claude Chabrol´s short version of "M", aired on French television in 1982. It´s "´M´ in ten minutes", with a new cast. It´s more remix than remake, offering mostly condensation rather than reinterpretation, but it´s still an interesting curiosity.
"An Interview with Harold Nebenzal"
A fifteen minute interview with the son of "M" producer Seymour Nebenzal. Harold discusses the business aspects of the film. Probably of interest only to devoted fans.
"Classroom Tapes of Paul Falkenberg."
Thirty six minutes of classroom lectures by "M" editor Paul Falkenberg, recorded at New School University in New York in 1976 and 1977. This feature replicates the classroom experience. The film plays while we listen to Falkenberg on tape, lecturing to his students. It stops when Falkenberg stopped it in class to discuss a specific detail. He´s a great lecturer and has crystal clear recall about the film´s production. I really enjoyed this feature.
"A Physical History of ´M´"
Twenty four minutes of background information about the film´s release history and its restoration. Great stuff for the technically inclined viewer.
The DVD also includes an extensive Stills Gallery with behind the scenes photos and production sketches by art director Emil Hasler.
The 32-page insert booklet features an essay by critic Stanley Kauffman as well as several articles printed around the time of the film's original release. "My Film M: A Factual Report" is a short article by Fritz Lang, originally printed in the German newspaper "Die Filmwoche" on May 20, 1931. Gabrielle Tergit's review "Fritz Lang's ‘m;' Filmed Sadism" originally appeared in "Die Welthüne" on June 9, 1931. An anonymous "underworld insider" wrote "Gangster, Too, Have Their Professional Honor" which originally appeared in "Film-Journal" on May 10, 1931. The booklet concludes with a 1963 interview with Lang, conducted by film historian Gero Gandert and originally printed in "Fritz Lang: ‘M' Protokoll." These are all reproduced from the insert booklet included with the 2004 re-release.
Criterion's Blu-Ray release of "M" is indisputably the best Region 1 version of Fritz Lang's masterpiece. In an unusual move for Criterion, they have included a Blu-Ray exclusive extra: the English-dubbed version of "M" (discussed above.) I wouldn't buy upgrade to the Blu-Ray just for that, but we're talking about "M" here. Though the 2004 SD re-release was an excellent one, this represents one of the best and most important Blu-Ray releases of the year. Why wouldn't you want to see and hear "M" in the best possible version? This gets the strongest possible recommendation.