When Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees whistles "In the Hall of the Mountain King," all the other judges scatter in terror.
Our review of M: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray), published April 22nd, 2010, is also available.
Just you wait, it won't be long—
Fritz Lang's 1931 masterpiece M, the proto-noir classic that paved the way for every crime thriller to follow, finally gets the DVD treatment it deserves. Those of you who own the previous Criterion release can relegate it to life as a coaster: This is the release you will want to own. And for those who have never before experienced this unforgettable film, now is the time, with it looking and sounding better than ever before. Check under the bed, lock your door, and prepare to have your blood curdled by one of the most powerful films of the twentieth century.
Facts of the Case
A killer is on the loose. He stalks children on the city streets, whistling a haunting tune, luring innocent young girls to him with an apple or a toy balloon. Police Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) and his men are becoming more and more frustrated, faced as they are with conflicting eyewitness reports, outbreaks of mob violence, and political pressure. Unable to identify the murderer—actually a respectable-looking young man named Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre, The Maltese Falcon)—the police fall back on the tried and true: staging raid after raid on known criminal hangouts.
Not surprisingly, this disrupts the usual course of crime, and soon the harried members of the underworld are driven to desperate measures: To protect their lifestyle, they organize an ambitious scheme to trap the killer themselves. Under the direction of the forceful Safecracker (Gustaf Gründgens), they mobilize the city beggars and assign them surveillance duties. When his eerie whistle identifies Beckert, one of the watchers marks him with an M for Mörder (murderer)—and now the pursuit truly begins.
One of the many ways Lang's M continues to outshine its legions of imitators and successors is in its intelligence. This is a film rich with insights, surprises, and provocative themes—a feast for the intellect. To name just a very few of the thought-provoking topics it raises, it delves into the culpability of the media in a culture of violence; the frustrations that tie the hands of the police in their efforts to keep the populace safe; the existence of honor and even a system of law enforcement in the criminal underworld; the symbiotic relationship between the police and criminals; the human tendency toward mob violence; and the imperfections of the justice system, including the difficulty of deciding how best to protect the innocent from a criminal who needs protection from himself. So complex are the ideas embodied in M that the film can, for instance, be seen as passionately advocating the death penalty (as none other than Goebbels interpreted it) or denouncing it with equal passion (as Lang intended). Adding to its sophistication, the film has a rich strain of wit and satire.
But the wealth of intellectual stimulation that M offers is given power by its emotional impact. Without this emotional appeal, the film might be little more today than an admired curiosity, a beautiful and technically exquisite but cold cerebral exercise. Lang keeps the humanity of the drama at the forefront, however, so that even today M still evokes such powerful emotional responses from us that any discussion of the film's meanings must take into account how it makes us feel as well as what it makes us think. Lang's consummate storytelling technique manipulates our emotions with a skill that few of its successors have equaled, let alone surpassed.
Note: Since M is preeminent among films, I am writing with the assumption that the reader has some familiarity with it. Those who have not yet seen the film and wish to remain unspoiled should skip down to the paragraphs discussing the transfer and extras.
From the beginning of the film, Lang evokes a powerful sense of dread and suspense from the seemingly ordinary. By holding on a shot of a balcony after the actress has vacated it, he makes us begin to feel uncomfortable. Then the camera shows us an empty staircase before we hear, let alone see, the woman enter the frame. These empty spaces create a sense of unease, making us wonder what is to come. In these shots nothing out of the ordinary does enter the frame, but Lang has already unsettled us, creating an implication that something sinister will surely enter these domestic spaces. What is even more elegant is that when the worst happens, Lang also shows it through absence: We hear the mother's plaintive voice calling for her daughter as we see a series of shots—a gaping staircase, an empty attic, the child's empty chair at the dining table—that tell us that the child is gone (forever, as we know) from the spaces she normally inhabits. When we do see the proof of Elsie's fate, it is through two objects that belonged to her: the ball we saw her bouncing, which rolls abandoned into the grass, and the balloon bought for her by the murderer, a grotesquely child-shaped novelty, flailing vainly against telephone wires. Elsie herself is present only by powerful implication, allowing our imaginations to fill in the horrible void.
The beautifully compact quality of this kind of visual storytelling—perhaps a technique Lang perfected during his work in silent films—is best summed up in a single shot in which Elsie encounters her future killer. The child has been bouncing her ball down the sidewalk and comes to a display of posters—prominent among them being the wanted poster for the man who has been murdering children. Elsie tosses her ball against the poster, all unaware of its significance, the white ball an emblem of childish innocence and ignorance against the grim notice of doom. And into the frame where the ball bounces against the wanted poster comes a shadow, the profile of the killer himself, almost as if summoned. It's one of the most memorable visual moments of a visually brilliant film, of such perfection that its impact might seem contrived—except that Beckert much later speaks of standing in front of a poster and reading of his own acts there. His presence at the site where Elsie is playing is thus explained, and it creates a circularity, as he finds a new victim while reading about his last one; the cyclical quality almost creates a sense of fate at work.
Of course, it's impossible to discuss the emotional impact of M without mentioning the emotional climax of the film: the "kangaroo court" scene and Beckert's impassioned defense of himself. For the first time we hear the murderer, this monster, speak in his own defense and give us some understanding of the personal demons that control him. We realize quickly that he is speaking from the heart, not out of mere self-preservation, when he exclaims "I can't help it!" Naturally, the criminals who are present as his judges and jury are skeptical; one jeers, "We know that one! Before the judge, we all 'can't help it.'" But as Beckert describes his compulsion, reliving his struggle even as we watch, we can't help but be drawn in by his anguish. It's like there are two of him, he cries out: one driving him onward, one resisting—and at this moment the camera cuts to close-ups of his listeners, nodding as if in recognition.
It's an extraordinary moment, enhanced by Lorre's powerful performance; yet it doesn't appear out of nowhere. Lang has carefully laid the groundwork for Beckert's anguished explanation of his compulsion—and our feelings of reluctant compassion for him. Almost from the beginning, Lang has presented Beckert in terms of duality, and we have been able to feel two simultaneous responses: both revulsion and pity. From the first time we see Beckert's face, the film's visual presentation presents him in pairs, reflected in mirrors and shop windows, as if accompanied by this other self that controls him. Even the tune he whistles—an excerpt from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite—speaks of the doubleness of his nature, since the Ibsen play that inspired Grieg's music deals with questions of identity and the title character's need to choose between human nature and becoming troll-like in character. Likewise, as Beckert changes from the hunter to the hunted over the course of the film, we see him change identity.
Lang also ensures that our response to Beckert is more complex than pure horror by other means. Lorre's own physical appearance is one of the most important influences on our feelings toward the character, and elsewhere on this disc we learn that Lang chose Lorre, who had never before acted on screen, precisely because he wanted an actor who did not look capable of being a murderer. That may be overstating it a bit, to be sure; as Beckert, Lorre exudes a kind of oiliness at times that makes our skin crawl, and those famously bulging eyes can make him look more like an insect than a normal human being. There's often a grotesque quality to his visual presence. Yet his round, boyish face makes him visually kin to the children he preys upon; his short, slightly plump build gives him a cozy, innocuous quality. He even seems to show a childlike side to his personality when we see him making faces at his reflection. And although our blood runs cold as we see his calculated wooing of a new victim, when he is trapped in a dark attic by his pursuers, it's Beckert we relate to, not those who are hunting him. As he crouches in hiding, we are emotionally in his shoes: The tension we feel is actually dread lest he be discovered.
In the scene in which we see his murderous compulsion take hold of him, he silently conveys a kind of struggle between personalities that prepares us for his later confession and hints to us that he may not be in control of his own actions. When he sees a young girl's reflection, the sight hits him with a physical jolt, and he looks as if he's going to faint. On the commentary, Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler use the word "swoon" to describe this moment, but that carries a suggestion of Keatsian sensuality and voluptuousness that doesn't match what we see on screen; Beckert looks more ill than enraptured. His body seems to sway toward the girl's reflection of its own volition. There's a faint tug at the corner of his mouth—the flicker of a smile, or a grimace? One thing is certain: There's no pleasure in his face. The emotion that emerges most clearly during this silent struggle is fear, which gives way to what seems like resignation. When he turns to look after the, we see his reflection again, and both Beckerts are inscrutable. Then he lowers his head and begins to whistle. The decision has made itself.
At the end of the film, Lang does what few, if any, modern filmmakers would do: He lets the duality continue through to the end. Beckert gets not one trial but two—and we are left only to guess what his final fate is. Even more remarkably, Lang reminds us, through the presence of three bereaved mothers, that Beckert's fate, a question of such urgency now that we have heard him speak in his own defense, is not ultimately important: Whatever happens to him won't bring back the murdered children. It's an ending all the more powerful for its refusal to give us resolution about the matter that has consumed us, and it seems startlingly modern in its refusal to offer a pat solution to a complicated human dilemma. For some, it was too intense to bear: The French release of the film actually altered the ending so that the story would end on an upbeat note.
Where it may be difficult to make a judgment regarding Beckert's fate, however, it's the work of a moment to arrive at a verdict regarding the film's presentation in this two-disc set. This new Criterion release immediately makes the previous one obsolete by presenting it in its original aspect ratio of 1.19:1 instead of cropping the image to fill the entire screen. Although the previous release claims that its aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is original, that's not truly the case, since part of the frame of the original 1.33:1 print was taken up by the soundtrack; thus, the image itself was only 1.19:1. To create this effect for DVD, the film is presented in "pillarboxed" form, with black bars at the sides of the picture. This transfer was taken from the original camera negatives of the film, which have been meticulously cleaned and restored. The excellent featurette "A Physical History of M" both explains the unusual aspect ratio and shows the extent of the work that was done to the camera negative to result in the remarkably fine transfer we see here. Dirt, speckling, and even extensive film damage have been removed, resulting in an image whose only signs of age are faint, gentle flicker and the occasional fine vertical line. Clarity and crispness are exceptional. Transition between scenes is smooth, without the jumps that were seen in the previous Criterion release. That release not only featured a cropped image but was also marred by the sporadic appearance of a horizontal line near the top of the frame, as well as showing a great deal of dirt, scratching, and other damage, so this new restoration looks even finer by comparison. The new restoration even boasts a credit sequence unseen in the previous DVD release.
Audio, too, is astonishing in its clarity and the absence of extraneous noise, distortion, and age defects. This is a new audio transfer from the original elements, and like the visual transfer it has been lovingly cleaned to remove pops, hisses, and other damage. The end result is remarkable; only very rarely, during scenes that featured lots of crowd noise, is there any distortion, and in all other respects the audio experience is pristine. Again, this is an enormous improvement over the first Criterion release, which was almost painful to listen to sometimes due to the harshness and distorted highs. The English subtitles have even been translated afresh and improved over those in the previous release; you'll notice that previously awkward phrasings have become more idiomatic, and some parts have been "universalized," such as the cryptic reference to "Paragraph 51," which is now translated as a plea of insanity. In terms of audiovisual and restoration quality alone, then, this release stands head and shoulders—and waist and knees and ankles, for that matter—above the previous Criterion release.
The disc extras offer a further level of superiority over the previous release, which was a barebones disc. This time around, Criterion provides a distinguished array of extras to delight the hearts of film buffs.
• Commentary by film scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler—The erudition of this commentary is impressive: Kaes and Rentschler cover real-life murders that inspired the story, but they also talk a great deal about the symbols in the film (sometimes showing a Freudian influence); recurring visual motifs, such as the use of clocks and watches to create a sense of urgency; and underlying messages about society and the media. I found particularly fascinating a morsel of information about a memo Lang wrote that revealed an early idea about the source of Beckert's pathology. Kaes and Rentschler also provide valuable observations on the uses of sound and silence in the film (this was Lang's first sound film). At times the scholarly atmosphere becomes a bit stifling, threatening to analyze the heart out of the film, but overall this commentary definitely enhances one's appreciation for the film and the artistry with which it was created—which I believe to be the highest purpose of a commentary.
• Conversation with Fritz Lang (49 minutes)—This black-and-white film from 1975 (the year before Lang's death) consists simply of William Friedkin interviewing Lang, who discusses his entry into show business and moviemaking, a number of his early films (including Metropolis and The Testament of Doctor Mabuse), the making of M, and his departure from Germany after a meeting with Goebbels—a story that has been revealed as a fiction in at least some aspects but which is nonetheless gripping as Lang recounts it. The elderly Lang is a deliberate speaker, so his stories often unfold slowly, but this is a rewarding feature that repays one's patience.
• M le Maudit—This 1982 short film by Claude Chabrol (director of thrillers like La Cérémonie) is essentially a 10-minute version of M. Of interest as much for what it omits as for what it preserves, it lovingly attempts to recreate certain of Lang's indelible moments and yet stand on its own as a narrative. Its success is mixed; uneven pacing prevents it from conveying the urgency of the parent film, and Maurice Risch, playing Lorre playing Beckert, reveals by contrast just how extraordinary Lorre's performance is. Nevertheless, it's an interesting novelty and, together with the director interview, may be of value to film students and scholars.
• Interview with Claude Chabrol (6:46)—Chabrol discusses the technical side of Lang's filmmaking style and the difficulties of trying to duplicate them, as he did in M le Maudit. This brief piece is a welcome complement to the short film and an illuminating perspective on the technical precision Lang brought to M.
• Classroom tapes of editor Paul Falkenberg (36 minutes)—Here footage from M is accompanied by audio tapes of Falkenberg giving lectures to film students. Almost the entire first half hour of the film is shown (with some pauses and rewinds) while Falkenberg discusses it and responds to student questions; the feature then skips ahead and picks up toward the end of the film. It's almost another feature commentary, albeit in a truncated form. Falkenberg offers insight into Lang's filming methods and some intriguing trivia about the making of the film. Some of the audio track is troubled with considerable hiss, but Falkenberg can always be understood.
• Interview with Harold Nebenzal (14:30)—Taped in 2004, this new interview with the son of M's producer offers inside information on the formation of Nero Films (the studio that financed M) and the 1951 American remake of M, which was dogged by rumors of Communist connections. Nebenzal, who was eight years old at the time M was made, has some surprising background to offer on the role of Americans in German independent filmmaking.
• "A Physical History of M" retrospective featurette (25 minutes)—This illuminating segment shows us the way the unusual aspect ratio came about and also gives us a surprisingly in-depth look at the contemporaneous French release of the film, which had different credits, a different ending, some different actors, and a different version of the Beckert monologue in the kangaroo court scene, which Lorre performs in French. We also learn more about the previous releases of M and the compromises they made in terms of picture quality and aspect ratio. Perhaps most powerful of all, we see a clip from the Nazi propaganda film Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), which used excerpts from Lorre's performance as Beckert as "proof" of the inherent criminality of the Jewish nature. Even for those who aren't interested in the technical aspects of aspect ratios and cropping, there is plenty here to intrigue the viewer, and it's particularly fascinating to be able to compare Lorre's performances in two different versions of his most powerful scene.
• Stills gallery—This self-navigated gallery is divided into six sections. It contains publicity stills, photos from the set, and many production sketches and paintings by art director Emil Hasler, which provide a wonderfully eerie sense of atmosphere and often evoke a more expressionistic style than emerges on film. Captions identify figures in the photos. There are also posters and promotional materials, my personal favorite being the Argentine poster from the 1940s that presents M like a vampire flick.
• 32-page booklet—This contains an essay by film critic Stanley Kauffman; a 1963 interview with Lang; the script for a deleted (and now missing) scene; newspaper articles published at around the time of M's release (one by Lang himself, one by an anonymous member of the criminal underworld, and one that, ironically, denounces Lang's film as pandering to the public's hunger for violence); and still photographs from behind the scenes of the film. The booklet also contains a cast list and a note on the new transfer that discusses the aspect ratio and other details.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
From what I have observed of Criterion's other releases, the extras tend to focus on the filmmakers—directors, producers, editors, and so on—rather than the actors. Although I believe I understand this logic of this approach, sometimes I feel the need to hear from the actors as well as from those behind the camera, and this is definitely one of those cases. As grateful as I am for the chance to hear Lang and Falkenberg discuss the film, I really want to hear Peter Lorre's perspective as well. Lorre's remarkable performance has contributed greatly to the enduring power of this film; indeed, the commentators observe that this is as much a Peter Lorre film as it is a Fritz Lang film. Surely Lorre had much to say on the experience of making his first film and of its effect on his film career, both for better and for worse. He probably also had some insights to offer on working with Lang, who was notorious for his harsh treatment of his actors. I have no doubt that vintage footage or (at least) written materials exist that would have filled in Lorre's side of M, and I sorely feel the lack of his presence in this release. It's a gaping void in an otherwise lavish assemblage of supplemental material.
M continues to prove its relevance and power with each passing year. Those who are already acquainted with this unforgettable film will be enraptured by the new restoration and the bevy of fine extras. And for those who have yet to experience M, Criterion's new release is an unbeatable introduction to it. This release is quite simply a gift to film lovers.
For once, both the criminal underworld and the justice system can agree: The defendant is free to go, and Criterion is issued a commendation from the bench for this exemplary release.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Film Scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler
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