M (Masters of Cinema) Review
A German city lives in fear of a child murderer. A reward is offered for any information. The police are under pressure to find the killer.- and the city's criminals, feeling the effects of greater police attention, decide to take the law into their own hands.
There’s a story that Irving Thalberg, the “boy wonder” studio head of MGM, showed his executives Fritz Lang’s film M and asked why Hollywood was not making films of that calibre. He also admitted that if one of his writers had submitted a story involving a child murderer he would have rejected it. (And you would have to wonder what the Hays Office would have said about it. While not a Hollywood film, M is distinctly Pre-Code in sensibility.)
M is a landmark of the early sound era. Lang himself thought it his best film. Forget what you may have heard about early talkies being cinematically dull, with a camera nailed to the floor while characters chatter incessantly. Lang – like Hitchcock: the two men were often compared to each other – who had begun his career in the silent era took great advantage of the possibilities of the new sound technology. At times, M is a silent film – with no sound at all (there’s no music score) for minutes on end before the quiet is broken by a sound, for example a police whistle. Lang also has scenes where a character speaks off-screen while the camera is pointing somewhere else – now a standard technique but very innovative in its day.
Four out of Lang’s previous five films - Metropolis and Die Frau im Mond and the two parts of Die Nibelungen - had been science fiction or fantasy, while M is a crime drama, in part a police procedural conveyed with documentary-like realism. Yet to call this a naturalistic drama is a little misleading, as the visual style (especially Fritz Arno Wagner’s black and white camerawork) is deeply indebted to German expressionism. Some of this is due to Peter Lorre’s performance as the murderer Hans Beckert, one of his earliest films and the one that made him famous.
Considering the impact of this performance, it’s surprising that Lorre’s screen time is actually quite limited. Lorre (born in what was then Austria-Hungary, now Slovakia) at first was reluctant to play the leading role in a film, feeling that due to his short stature (5'5”) and corpulence he was hardly a matinee idol. Yet Lang discerned a demonic force behind the plump, round-faced exterior and Lorre unleashed it in a final scene where he is up against the criminals’ kangaroo court. Demonic is the word, yet his Beckert is pathetic too, driven to kill by forces he cannot control nor comprehend.
Debates about capital punishment continue to this day, and although Lang and his co-writer wife Thea von Harbou intended M as an anti-death penalty film (while using a character guilty of the worst crime they could come up with), they do allow opposing arguments to be heard. Some people have taken it as the exact opposite of its makers’ intentions– including an approving Josef Goebbels. The ending is left open: decide for yourself.
M is released by Masters of Cinema both as a two-disc DVD (number 92 in the collection) and a single-disc Blu-ray. It is the former edition which is under review here: it comprises two DVD-9s which are in NTSC format and encoded for all regions. (The Blu-ray is Region B only.)
As it was made after the silent era (for which an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 was the norm) but before Academy Ratio (1.37:1) became standard, M was intended for the narrower ratio of 1.19:1, and this DVD transfer respects that ratio. It’s just as well it does, as there are many shots which would suffer if the image were cropped into Academy, as did happen with many early talkies when reissued. (This is sadly the case with many films of this era on DVD.)
This is the longest-available version of M. It premiered at a running time of 117 minutes, but was cut for reissue to a length of around 93 minutes. This restored version uses the original negative, plus missing material found from contemporary nitrate prints (including a French version), scanned in high definition at 2K resolution and digitally restored. While the results are inevitably dependent on the state of the materials – you can spot the scenes not in the negative from differences in grain size and there are still occasional faint tramlines visible in places – this is an amazingly good transfer for a film nearly eighty years old, and no doubt the Blu-ray will look even better. The transfer is preceded by captions detailing the restoration, though for some reason these take the place of some of the opening credits. Including these captions, this version runs 111 minutes exactly.
Go to Noel Megahey's review for screengrabs of Eureka's two-disc edition of 2003. I do not have a copy of that edition to hand, so the following comparison is with Eureka's previous single-disc edition from 1999, which incidentally is PAL and encoded for Regions 2 and 4 though is in the 1.19:1 ratio. This is first, the new edition second.
The soundtrack has been digitally restored and cleaned-up (24-bit, for those who like to know these things) and is presented in mono over two channels. As this is such an early talkie, it will always exhibit the lower dynamic range of vintage soundtracks, but that's as it should be. The dialogue is always clear, and English subtitles are available.
There are two commentaries. The first (recorded in 2004 for Criterion's edition) is by scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler, which is a thorough look at the making of the film, its visual and aural style and the crucial contribution of Peter Lorre. I found it a little drier than the second commentary however. This (recorded in 2003 for Eureka's earlier two-disc edition) is more piecemeal. Hosted by historian Torsten Kaier, it features contributions from Martin Koerber, who discusses the restoration, and Peter Bogdanovich who also plays tape recordings of his 1960s interviews with Lang. The quality of these extracts isn't great - there's plenty of tape hiss – but as these were intended as research material and not for public consumption (and are over forty years old as well) that's not a complaint.
Disc Two features two further extras, but are both substantial. Many early talkies were shot in more than one version, and sometimes the original director was involved. However, with M, Lang made only a German-language version. French and English versions were later made without his involvement, by a combination of redubbing, replacement of on-screen text (sometimes done by dissolving from one to the other) and occasional reshooting of some scenes. And that includes the most celebrated scene in the film, and Lorre was on hand to recreate his role. The English version marks his debut acting in that language. Long thought lost, this version survives in a former distribution print of this version held by the National Film Archive and is presented on this DVD. It runs 93:03 and is justifiably preceded by advice that the print has a fair amount of damage, which is immediately demonstrated by the BBFC A certificate at the beginning going out of rack. This print is in a ratio of 1.33:1 and a screengrab follows.
Zum Beispiel: Fritz Lang (20:38) is a 1968 interview with Lang by Erwin Leiser. In black and white and 4:3, this is in very good condition. However, the interview is in German and the checkdisc I'm reviewing from had no subtitles available, so more I cannot say. I do hope this isn't the case on the retail version. Hard-of-hearing subtitles on the English-language version of M would have been good too. In the meantime, I have knocked a couple of marks off the extras score for this.
Masters of Cinema's booklet runs to 48 pages. It begins with Lang himself, first in an article from 1931 (translated from German in 2001 by Catherine Kerkhoff-Saxon), “My Film M - A Factual Report” and discusses fact-based cinema's ability to draw attention to social ills and dangers. Second is an interview by Gero Gandert from 1963 (again conducted in German: the 2004 translation is by Barry W.K. Joe). Lang discusses the inspiration for M and his approach to making the film, especially in the use of sound. He also disputes that this film contains “romantic elements” but acknowledges the influence of Bert [sic] Brecht.
In addition, Anton Kaes introduces the script of a scene that was apparently excised by the German censor and does not exist in any available copy of the film. Robert Fischer discusses the making of the French- and English-language versions of M. The booklet also includes a page of notes on the restoration, film and DVD credits and production stills.