When one letter could mean so much to film aficionados everywhere, you know you have something special in your midst. The film I’m alluding to is Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece M. A masterpiece that, luckily for the Criterion Collection, has gained a high watermark in the hearts of film fans everywhere. What more could a fan say about this wonderful and haunting film?
Peter Lorre stars as serial killer and alluded pedophile Hans Beckert, which was his first starring role in a film. Remember, this was made in Germany while thee Nazis were in power, so you had German Expressionism on the rise and German film was chugging along with one brilliant film after another, and M is no exception to that statement. Lorre was known for comedic roles before this film, but once you see him as Hans Beckert, you won’t think of him in the same way again. The way he commands the camera and the attention of the audience in M is still an amazing feat and it’s sad that most people know Lorre from his caricature from Looney Tunes cartoons and as stereotypical villains in Hollywood films (even though he is quite brilliant in Arsenic and Old Lace).
What’s brilliant about this film is that at the heart of it, we have a killer who is preying on children and then we have the two groups of people trying to find this killer, the cops and the criminals. While his reign of terror is going on in Berlin, we have these two groups reaching a fever pitch of the highest magnitude, and we are sitting, watching as this all unfolds, wondering who will get to Beckert first to end his criminal ways. And we have a lot of foreshadowing within the film, most importantly right in the beginning of the film while a group of school children are singing a song about a child murderer and then we have Lorre’s entrance onto the screen, which still strikes a chill down anybody’s spine who watches it for the first time.
You will never hear a creepier version of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, hummed by Beckert, especially while he strolls along, buying a balloon from a blind man and giving it to a little girl named Elsie, who of course takes the nice gesture. And Lang uses that moment to cut right away to her mother frantically looking for Elsie and panning up to the same balloon Beckert gave to her, tangled up in phone wires and then flying away, representing not only her youth and innocence, but her life now slipping away to the heavens.
One can’t forget the brilliant performance by Otto Wernicke who plays Inspector Karl Lohmann, who is using state of the art criminal apprehension methods, such as looking and comparing handwriting techniques and fingerprinting. He even gets the force to do surprise raids and questioning known criminals as suspects, trying to find a common thread. This upsets the criminal underworld, who decide to take the matter into their own hands, searching for the killer themselves so business can resume as usual, employing the city’s beggers to watch over the children and keeping a lookout in general for anyone suspicious.
And what makes the film so tense and exciting is that Beckert is unaware that both of these groups are searching for him, while he nonchalantly whistles the same tune he was earlier while going by the blind balloon salesman, who of course alerts one of the criminals about this bit of news. In order to track the killer down easier, the criminal writes a big letter M onto his own hand with chalk, which stands for “MÃ¶rder”, and slaps him on his shoulder, transferring the M and making it easier for the beggars to let the head criminals know where he is going to next.
“Who knows what it’s like to be me?” What a line of dialogue, which Beckert utters in an impassioned monologue in a makeshift trial the criminals have set up to give him a sense of justice. They even give him a lawyer as well, but we know this is all leading to their own murdering ways. Even the judge is wanted on 3 counts of manslaughter, which is pointed out by Beckert’s lawyer. Right when they ‘convict’ him and are about to execute, the cops come busting through and take Becker away. Which then leads to one of the most amazing final shots in film history, where we see Beckert about to hear his sentence and it cuts to three of the victim’s mothers crying while we see Elsie’s mother telling us that neither sentence will ever bring back the children and for all of us, as parents and future parents, to watch over our children.
Watch for the way Lang uses windows, mirrors and the art of reflection for expressive purposes, which has been repeatedly borrowed and used in film, even to this day. Lang has said this was his masterpiece and one can argue with that sentiment but can’t deny that this film deserves a place not only in the Criterion Collection, but in the pantheon of film itself.
And with Criterion’s third release, which is their beautiful print on Blu-Ray which yet again, like their prints Yojimbo and Sanjuro, make the film look as if it came out a decade ago and not 80 years ago. And as usual with The Criterion Collection, the extras are packed to the brim. From an amazing documentary about the path M took to be restored to an insightful and fun interview with Fritz Lang, conducted by The Exorcist director William Friedkin. A top notch commentary track with German scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler, which gives a academic look at the history of M and all its players, which is a Criterion standard. And for the Blu-Ray edition only, we get an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, which really packs a punch when there’s complete silence on the screen. As opposed to before when you’d still hear some grain in the soundtrack, this time there is silence and that makes the film even more dynamic. Rounding out the Blu-Ray edition is the long lost English version of M as well, which is from a nitrate print, preserved by none other than the British Film Institute.
If you haven’t bought it before, then what are you waiting for? Packed to the brim with extras, the only complaint one might have with the film is that the subtitles aren’t necessarily the best quality. But that’s one minor gripe from an overall classic film.
Images and video courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Criterion # 30 Available on DVD and Blu-ray, May 11th, 2010.
A simple, haunting musical phrase whistled offscreen tells us that a young girl will be killed. ‘Who Is the Murderer?’ pleads a nearby placard as serial killer Hans Beckert, played by Peter Lorre, closes in on little Elsie Beckmann. In his harrowing masterwork M, Fritz Lang merges trenchant social commentary with chilling suspense, creating a panorama of private madness and public hysteria that to this day remains the blueprint for the psychological thriller.
SPECIAL EDITION DOUBLE-DISC SET:
- Restored high-definition digital transfer (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
- The long-lost English-language version of M (on the Blu-ray edition)
- Audio commentary by German film scholars Anton Kaes, author of the BFI Film Classics volume on M, and Eric Rentschler, author of The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife
- Documentary on the physical history of M, from production to distribution to digital restoration
- Conversation with Fritz Lang, a 50-minute film by William Friedkin
- Claude Chabrol’s M le Maudit, a short film inspired by M, plus an interview with Chabrol by Pierre-Henri Gibert about Lang’s filmmaking techniques
- Classroom audiotapes of editor Paul Falkenberg discussing M and its history, set to clips from the film
- Video interview with Harold Nebenzal, the son of M producer Seymour Nebenzal
- Stills gallery, with behind-the-scenes photos, and production sketches by art director Emil Hasler
- Plus: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Stanley Kauffmann, a 1963 interview with Lang, the script for a missing scene, and contemporaneous newspaper articles