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, 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.
Fritz Lang's 1931 masterpiece 'M' is a film with many actors, but few developed characters. Most that we're introduced to have (intentionally) thinly-defined personalities. We may hear their names in passing, but they are most often referred to by nondescript titles like Inspector, Minister, or Safecracker. They're archetypes who stand for particular segments of society, more so than three-dimensional people with lives outside the plot of this story. However, the picture opens with one young girl whose name sears into memory: Elsie Beckmann. Elsie goes missing a few minutes into the movie and is never seen again, but her memory will haunt an entire city forever.
In the years between the two World Wars, a German city suffers a string of child abductions at the hands of a mysterious murderer known as the Man in Black, who has become a bogeyman to all the local children. We know little about him at first. He's introduced only as a shadow on a wall. He whistles a tune from 'Peer Gynt'. He terrorizes the police and the press with letters promising to strike again. His actions upend the city. No one trusts anyone else. People turn on one another over the simplest suspicions or misunderstandings. In desperation, the police respond to every false accusation with force. They repeatedly harass and raid all local businesses, both legitimate and illegitimate.
The order of things gets to be so disrupted that the city's regular working criminals – the thieves and gangsters, card sharps and con men – band together to find the perpetrator on their own. He's bad for their business, you see. The story that follows is a procedural of sorts. The police on one end and the crooks on the other work separately toward a common goal. They want to put this man out of action. Each group uses its own particular skill sets to investigate the crimes. The cops employ all the modern tools at their disposal: forensics, fingerprinting, handwriting analysis, and even dubious psychoanalysis. Meanwhile, the criminals recruit the city's network of panhandlers to keep tabs on children and report anything suspicious.
The film is not a murder mystery. The identity of the killer is revealed to the audience (if not the other characters) fairly early on. In fact, Peter Lorre's image, sporting the "M" mark for "murderer" ("mörder" in German) even adorns the case art of this Criterion Blu-ray. The part was an early starring role for Lorre. The international acclaim from it would launch his long and successful career as a character actor.
This is not a plot spoiler. Lorre's character Hans Beckert is the single most defined and developed figure in the film. 'M' was one of the first movies to address the possibility that a killer, even a psychopathic serial killer, could be a victim of his own compulsions, unable to resist his terrible urges. This isn't used to excuse his actions, merely to explain them.
Fritz Lang was a formalist master. His use of film language is virtually unparalleled. By the time the criminals corner Beckert in an office building, their systematic search for him builds tremendous suspense. 'M' was an early sound production, and Lang's first with sound, which he initially approached grudgingly. Nevertheless, he integrates it as an essential component of the storytelling. And not just for dialogue. The discovery of the killer hinges on a specific sound (his whistling), which characters hear it, and when they hear it. The director also plays with audience expectations in regard to audio. He allows long stretches to go by in absolute silence – no dialogue, no music, no sound effects, not even ambience. The effect is unnerving.
The story asks many difficult questions about the natures of crime and punishment. Can a man this dangerous be allowed to live? Would killing him serve justice, or just revenge? The law would undoubtedly let him off too easily, by sentencing him to a mental hospital and then letting him out a few years later to strike again. The criminal underworld can exact a more permanent solution, but are these thieves and scoundrels fit to judge such a man? These are critical questions that 'M' asks. The film had no answers then, just as we still have no answers now.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Criterion Collection has released 'M' on Blu-ray as spine #30, to match its existing DVD editions. The studio first released the film on DVD in 1998 as a movie-only disc with an older transfer, then re-released it in 2004 with a restored transfer and a host of bonus features. The Blu-ray builds off that most recent DVD.
The Blu-ray edition comes packaged in a clear keepcase, and includes a 32-page booklet. Unlike other studios, Criterion does not program any obnoxious trailers or promos before the main menu.
How does one rate the video quality of a disc like 'M' on any sort of objective scale? The picture has a fair amount of scratches and film damage, jitter, pulsing, and even occasional missing frames. If this were a modern production, these problems would be inexcusable. Of course, 'M' isn't a modern production. It's a foreign film from 1931 that was badly mistreated over the decades. The documentary in the Blu-ray's supplement section explains just how much hard work was needed to restore the movie to a reasonable semblance of what Fritz Lang wanted it to be. These are factors that must be taken into consideration.
The fact is that 'M' actually looks quite terrific overall. The 1.19:1 (yes, that aspect ratio is correct, as also explained in the documentary) pillarboxed black & white picture exhibits an incredible amount of detail. It has excellent gray scale and shadow definition. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is gritty and grainy, but that's appropriate for the time period and subject matter. The grain appears to be properly rendered, without objectionable false noisiness or Digital Noise Reduction artifacts.
Despite extensive digital repair of the worst film damage, occasional nicks and scratches remain throughout. A few patches of the film were obviously sourced from prints in worse condition than the rest. In context, none of these problems are too distracting. The restoration of this movie is really quite a remarkable achievement.
Criterion presents the original German soundtrack in PCM 2.0 mono format. The fidelity of the source is obviously limited by its age. For the most part, dialogue is crisp and clear. Sound effects like bells, horns, and the killer's whistling are sometimes startlingly loud and sharp.
Some analog hiss is present. The recording quality is also often a little bright. But these are problems easy to dismiss when remembering the movie's age. For a movie from 1931, this disc sounds pretty good.
As mentioned in the movie review section above, the film features several extended sequences without any audio at all. These are an artistic effect, not a disc defect.
Criterion's Blu-ray carries over all of the bonus features from the studio's 2004 DVD edition. Although most of these features are encoded at 1080i resolution, they have clearly been upconverted from standard definition sources.
Criterion has once more done a bang-up job restoring a cinema classic. Fritz Lang's 'M' is a genuine masterpiece. The Blu-ray looks terrific, and has a number of excellent and informative bonus features. Very highly recommended.