DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

M, Blu-ray (1931/2010)

The original blueprint for the psychological thriller, gloriously restored and with massive extras.

Published on May 17, 2010

M, Blu-ray (1931/2010)

M, Blu-ray (1931/2010)

Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Peter Lorre
Studio: Nero Films/The Criterion Collection 30 [5/11/10]

Video: 1.19:1 pillarboxed, 1080p HD B&W
Audio: German uncompressed PCM mono
Subtitles: English
Extras: 1974 50 minute interview with Fritz Lang, Commentary track by German film scholars Anton Kaes & Eric Rentschler, Complete long-lost English version of M, M le maudit – 10-minute version of M shot by Claude Chabrol for French TV, Video interview with Harold Nebenzal – son of the producer of M, Audiotapes from classroom discussion of M by editor Paul Falkenberg – set to clips from the film, Documentary on the physical production of M, Behind-the-scenes stills gallery and production sketches, Illustrated booklet with essay by film critic Stanley Kauffman – script for a missing scene – a 1936 interview with Lang – three contemporary (negative) newspaper articles on M, (No BD-Live; Thank You Criterion!)
Length: 110 minutes
Rating: *****

An absolutely fascinating in-depth look at one of the most classic early German expressionist films (which frankly I had expected to be slow going, and it wasn’t at all!).  It is, as one critic put it, the blueprint for today’s psychological thriller. This was the first film for German actor Lorre, who had been in stage plays by Bert Brecht, and he pulls out all the stops for a roaring, ranting final scene when he stands accused of murders of  little girls. As Criterion’s always-informative printed booklet begins, “It’s hard to believe that M was made in 1931.”  Of course Criterion’s pain-staking restoration work on both the images and soundtrack rate a strong vote here, but the story line, design work, cinematography, and acting (taking into account the somewhat histrionic style left over from the silents and endemic to German productions anyway), don’t seem terribly dated at all.

M (for Mörder in German) used a screenplay written by Fritz Lang’s then wife about a ficticious serial killer of children terrorizing Weimar Republic Berlin (altho there had been a number of similar stories in the news). The viewer learns from the start who the murderer is; the suspense element comes from the effect his actions have on the city and its people. He has the veneer of an ordinary citizen, though he is a deranged serial killer. All the normal authorities are pursuing the killer but not getting anywhere. The non-violent criminal underground – thieves, beggars, etc. – are being harassed by police raids and inspections, ruining their efforts to make a living. (Some of the underground actors were actual celebrities of Berlin’s underground.) So they organize and go after the killer themselves, find him and set up a kangaroo court to try him and hopefully to kill him.  The criminals decide he must be killed because if he is given to the authorities they will just send him to an asylum for awhile or  imprison him for awhile and then decide he is recovered and allow him to go free and kill children again. The private madness of the killer is convincingly portrayed by Lorre in his final scene. It’s interesting that Lang’s studio shot much of the film over again for both English and French versions; the recently-discovered English version is one of the extras here. (Lorre isn’t as histrionic in it as in the German original.)

The unusual aspect ratio – almost a square – was shared by many early sound-on-film films, due to their using a wide variable-area optical track which took up so much space on the left side next to the sprockets that there was less room for the image next to it.  Most films of this period – European and American – are scratchy, washed-out or too contrasty, with terrible soundtracks that make it difficult to even understand English dialog. Criterion’s restoration work on both the image and sound of M have moved even beyond their earlier standard DVD version; new sources have become available and digital restoration techniques have advanced greatly in recent years. If you saw an awful-looking print of M (probably 16mm) in a repertory theater or college in the distant past, you owe it to yourself to see this amazing Blu-ray version. The visual quality is superb – often looking like it was shot recently, though black & white. Although Lang made powerful use of sound to enhance the mood of the film; his policy was to eliminate amorphous background sounds on the track, such as street traffic, and concentrate only on the sounds vital to the film – such as Lorre’s struggling to break a lock to get out, or his whistling. (By the way, Lorre couldn’t whistle, so a “ghost whistler” was brought in to whistle “In the Hall of the Mt. King,” which is the sound the blind balloon seller recognizes that finally fingers the killer.)  Lang’s approach to the soundtrack creates some odd scenes with cars roaring around to complete silence.  However, it was probably entirely appropriate for the early days of sound, when complex mixes of sounds weren’t successfully transmitted by the primitive technology. There is absolutely no music on the soundtrack.

The bonus features are excellent, as usual with Criterion. The Nebenzal interview and the notes in the booklet put the lie to Fritz Lang’s story in his interview (the year before his death) with William Friedkin about being called into Joseph Goebbel’s office in 1933 and asked to become head of the Nazi film effort, and then leaving for Paris the next morning. However, he was a strong foe of fascism after he was finally safe in the West.  The Nebenzal interview is also most interesting in revealing there was an American remake of M in 1951 featuring actor David Wayne, directed by Josephy Losey, and produced by Nebenzal’s father. It moved the setting from Berlin to LA.  Nebenzal said it was quickly withdrawn due to “a communist cell” having been discovered in the production (which took place during the Hollywood Black List period). But according to Wikipedia, the film was withdrawn because it failed with both the critics and general public.

 – John Sunier

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