M Review

Eureka continue to provide good DVD releases of restored silent and early cinema classics, and when the film merits special attention - like the recently restored Metropolis - they really pull out all the stops for a Special Edition. If any film from this period can be considered worthy of restoration and Special Edition treatment, Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece M must be at the top of the list.

This is a magnificent film, still vitally important and relevant to modern-day concerns about the rising number of child abductions and killings. Lang, in a script co-written by his wife (and author of Metropolis) Thea von Harbou, treats the subject with rigorous detail towards authenticity, without sensationalism and with careful consideration and examination of the arguments often put forward on how to deal with the problem. In M, the abduction and death of a number of young girls has the city living under a shadow of terror that provokes a wave of paranoia and hysteria. The police are keen to do everything in their power to find the murderer and the criminal underworld find their activities disrupted by the increased police activity. The main criminal organisations band together and decide to tackle the problem themselves using the vast network of beggars to monitor any strangers approaching children.

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As the police net tightens and the criminals close in on their man – will judicial procedure or mob-rule prevail? Which method is most effective way of dealing with those who prey on young children? When we are no nearer to understanding the impulses that drive paedophiles, the answer to that question is no clearer now than it was back then, but Lang’s film ends with a heart-rending and forceful plea that cannot be denied as the only effective method of combating the problem and keeping our children safe – “One has to take more care of them”. It is a message that is still terribly relevant and important today.

As one of the earliest talking movies, M was highly influential in many ways – in construction, narrative development and photographic innovation. Lang moved away from the fantasy horror creatures of The Golem and Nosferatu to the ultra-realistic, but no less terrifying figure of the child murderer. Lorre’s shadow over a wanted poster as he approaches Elsie Beckman is just as iconic and arguably more terrifying than the long shadows of Murnau’s sinister Nosferatu. It is also only one of a number of startling images from a film that is littered with incredible scenes.

Some of the these experiments work and others don’t. The pacing of the film is unusual, with long scenes of dialogue mixed with pantomime silent-movie action. Lang’s work at meticulously depicting police procedurals, criminal investigation and psychological profiling however are hugely important and influential, balancing spoken information whilst depicting the path to the killer with clarity and purpose through images, charts and maps.

Peter Lorre, as Hans Becker, is magnificent. The acting in the film is generally of very high quality, but Lorre is like a character from a different film - like a silent actor his every gesture is expressive, his famous eyes gleaming with fear and excitement as he cowers in dark shadows. The strong naturalistic performances of the remainder of the cast only serve to put Lorre’s study of compulsive malevolence all the more starkly into relief. His character is given psychological depth however and treated as a human being – he is never portrayed as an out-and-out monster. Accepting that in every other aspect Becker is an ordinary human being, Lang alerts us to the real terror and danger - the ordinary-looking person sitting next to you could be a compulsive killer and there is no way you would ever know.

The original print of M ran at 111 minutes on its release (trimmed down from 117) and that is the length of the film here – running to 106 minutes with 4% PAL speed-up. It is sourced from the restored nitrate negative held at the Bundesfilmarchiv, with additional elements from 1st generation prints. Additional digital clean-up was done by IML for the DVD release. The film is shown pillarbox-style, with borders on all sides to preserve an almost square original aspect ratio of 1.19:1. A comparison with the previous Eureka release is provided below to show the quality and extra information available on the new edition. The older print shows second-frame lines at the top throughout the film and an image that has been enlarged to fit a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Click on the thumbnails for a larger image. (Thanks to Mark Boydell for the comparison image).

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The picture quality of the restored print is superb. There are still frequent dust-spots, the occasional problem frame and some not quite perfect matching between the different sources gathered together to make this print. These artefacts could not be removed without subjecting the film to Digital Noise Reduction, something the restoration team has studiously avoided, restoring by hand to maintain the integrity of the original print. If you haven’t seen an old version of this film you will wonder how it could be described as superb, but this is really just about as good as this film has ever looked, so it really is a remarkable achievement. Certain scenes are breathtakingly good, astonishingly sharp, with a full range of grey-scale tones, fine depth of contrast and low levels of grain. Annoyingly though, two or three scenes show some minor aliasing and shimmer on a checked blouse, on wood grain and brick pillars, but this is not prevalent by any means.

The sound elements have also been restored, but the source elements are obviously lacking in places. Voices are sometimes thin or muffled, and occasionally when the volume is increased, it sounds a little bit shrill. It should be remembered that talkies were in their infancy here, so recording methods were far away from today’s standards. On the whole the Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack performs quite well considering it has been restored from the original elements and not tampered or improved upon in any way. Peter Bogdanovich remarks in the commentary track that there are elements audible here that he had never been able to hear before.

The subtitles are fine. They read well for the most part and try not to be intrusive on the picture, but occasionally are a little bit difficult to read when there is a lot of clutter in the image behind them. See image below left (Click to enlarge).

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Extras – Disc 1
The film restoration supervisors provide the main part of the commentary, pointing out the differences between the original negative and scenes sourced from prints. This is fairly obvious, as more grain and artefacts can be seen in the print elements. Peter Bogdanovich contributes some thoughts on the film and plays some interviews he recorded with Lang in 1965. They were recorded as research for a book, so the quality isn’t very good, but the subjects are relevant to the film. It’s an informative commentary, with lots of background on Lorre, how the film came to be made and details of the real-life case Lang based the story upon. However it is often unrelated to what is happening on the screen and isn’t always easy to listen to.

Documentary – The Restoration of M (23.07)
Peter Campbell from IML takes us through the digital restoration process, mostly picture, but also covering the audio restoration. I have never seen as much detail on the restoration process in a documentary and it only deepens your appreciation of the huge task faced by the restoration team. Because of advances in technology, the only real constraint to what can be done are factors of time and budget.

Extras – Disc 2
For Example: Fritz Lang (27.30)
Lang is interviewed by Erwin Leiser in German with optional English subtitles. He talks about his introduction into cinema and how it was an exciting period of discovery, as cinema had yet to be explored and anything was possible. He also narrates the famous story of his meeting with Nazi Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels. The interview is illustrated with long scenes from Dr Mabuse, Woman in the Moon, Metropolis and M

Lending order to terror: M (17:40)
This is another excellent visual essay by R Dixon Smith, narrated by Russell Cawthorne – familiar to anyone who has seen previous Eureka releases. Drawing on interviews and reviews at the time of the film’s release, Dixon Smith provides a look at the background of the film and a good analysis of the techniques used in the film, illustrated with clips and photographs. Biographical information is also provided on the cast and there is some examination of the ‘Monster of Düsseldorf’, the real-life case that Lang’s story is based on.

More about M
This section is made up of three parts - About Nero Film is a text feature providing information on the film company who produced the film. In Restoration of M (17.53), Martin Koerber, the restoration supervisor talks about unearthing the original negative from the vaults and putting the film back together as it ought to look. There is a detailed examination of the restoration processes and the elements used. This is a very informative feature. Storyboard to screen comparisons (2.03) shows detailed original storyboard drawings of the sets with clips of how they appear in the film. This can be navigated or allowed to play though.

An interview with Fritz Lang (37.12)
Additional audio tape segments from Peter Bogdanovich’s interviews with Lang. Introductions are provided to the different sections to place them in context, as Lang discusses his time in Hollywood, his experiences of being on a Communist blacklist, returning to Germany after the war, his feelings on Metropolis, the different levels that M works on and starting to use sound in his films. Poor quality makes this difficult to listen to at times, but it is informative and its inclusion for historical purposes is welcome.

Photo Gallery
The gallery is split into three sections - On The Set (8.37), a beautiful selection of still photographs on the set and behind the scenes; some superb designs and images for Advertising Billboard Posters (0.42); and Theatrical Programmes (4 pages).

Biographies and Filmographies
Extensive animated scrolling biographies and filmographies are provided for Peter Lorre, Fritz Lang and Gustaf Gründgens.

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In summary, this is simply an essential film, easily as influential and as innovative in its own way as Citizen Kane. A piece of cinematic history, yet still riveting, vital and accessible to a modern audience. It is presented here in a Special Edition that the film merits - M looks better than it ever has before and impresses all the more.

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