This restored version of the film begins with an explanation that this is as complete as the film can get, taking its source from the Federal Archive version (96 minutes) and a couple of other sources.
We begin with a group of children singing a nursery rhyme about a child murderer, whilst a woman chastises them. It turns out that Berlin is in the grips of a child killer, being hunted by an ineffective police force stretched to its limits as it tackles this case and a criminal fraternity operating in the city.
Whilst a mother waits for her daughter to come home, we see her daughter, Elsie, bouncing a ball against a poster offering a reward for any information about the killer. Aa man asks her questions before taking her away, buying sweets and a balloon from a blind balloon seller en route.
With everyone from the man on the street to local criminals being accused and investigated, it soon becomes apparent that the impact of police activity stretches far beyond those directly involved. The criminals are planning a big job, but finding themselves hampered by the police; certain less reputable businesses are suffering from the lack of trade, whilst parents and other adults are terrified to let any children play in the streets. The public are angry that the police are proving ineffective, and voicing their disapproval amongst themselves and to anyone who will listen. Politicians are involved as they try to make the best of a bad situation.
The criminals are the most resourceful, however, and use an army of beggars. Covering the streets of Berlin, the criminals hope to capture the killer, revealed as Hans Beckert, allay the fears of the public and carry on their usual activities, leaving the police to use their more traditional methods of investigation.
As the film builds to its conclusion, the significance of M becomes clear. The blind balloon seller hears the man whistling again, alerting the beggars and criminals. As the killer becomes more and more desperate, and the criminal fraternity assemble to capture Beckert, both parties find themselves in the same building. Realising the benefits of disposing of the killer themselves, they decide to take action, but justice (at the hands of the criminals or the police) isn’t far behind.
Brought to trial by the criminals, complete with a self-appointed judge, jury and defense, the killer makes a final, impassioned plea to his captors, revealing an intelligent, poetic and tormented soul within the monstrous killer. With this in mind, the assembled court of criminals debate the nature of violent behaviour and criminal behaviour before deciding the killer’s fate. However, the police arrive to arrest the killer and bring him to an uncertain justice.
M is made in a really interesting way, featuring plenty of cutaways which focus, not on action, but often on object shots (clocks, streets, stairs, maps, paperwork).A fine example is the opening sequence, particularly at the point where the mother is calling the girl’s name. It helps build tension, made more intense by the shot of a ball bouncing away and a balloon caught in electricity cables. It doesn’t ever reach breakneck speed – there are no long drawn out car chases or gunfights – but there is a pace to the filmmaking that does keep you gripped right up to the end.
A combination of murder investigation, exploration of authority and power, social study into paranoia and hysteria, and examination of the power of the press, M examines the slow moving, exhausted police force, comparing it to the much quicker and powerful criminal fraternity, who are capable of more creative methods of tracking down a killer.
Ultimately, the justice system does what the criminals couldn’t do and the killer is brought to justice with Elsie’s mother warning us that we have to watch out for all our children. With these themes in mind, it feels as relevant today as it did when it was originally released. Lang avoids slipping into an over-emotional or sentimental narrative, preferring to deal with the subject in a matter-of-fact way.
The picture quality is exceptional for a film of this age, with occasional dirt, missing frames and changes of contrast being only mildly distracting. When you consider that the film is from the 1930s, it’s an achievement.
The sounds quality is also quite impressive, with dialogue that is mostly clear and crisp, with any hissing and clicking kept to a minimum. There is no incidental music in the film, meaning that some sections fall into silence. At first this is disconcerting, making me check to see that my amp was still decoding sound, but it actually adds to the tension in places.
Obviously, the viewers of M are unlikely to be your average audience, and the extras on this Masters of Cinema release is testament to the seriousness with which Eureka are treating this film.
The first audio commentary is by Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler, recorded in 2004 for the Criterion release (as the title card explains). Rentschler and Kaes deliver a very dry, academically sound historical and social context to the film, as well as looking at the various techniques used in the film. Sadly, they do occasionally lapse into telling you what is happening on the screen, but otherwise it’s certainly a commentary of merit, particularly if you are interested in media studies or film studies.
The second audio commentary by film restoration expert Martin Koerber (who supervised the restoration of this version in 2001), filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and historian Torsten Kaiser with excerpts from Bogdanovich’s 1965 audio interviews with Lang suffers from the quality of the audio interviews, which are occasionally difficult to understand. The overall commentary is just as interesting as the first commentary, but not as dry. Two aspects that make this commentary worth listening to are Bogdanovich, who offers contemporary context for filmmakers, whilst Koerber speaks about the challenges of restoration and what they couldn’t restore. It covers a variety of topics including the impact on German society, filmmaking in general and some of the history behind the film.
M (English Language version) was shot simultaneously with the German production and features, as the title card states, Peter Lorre recreating his performance in English whilst other roles are dubbed, with some scenes being re-shot with different actors and by a different director. The film is heavily damaged and un-restored, but is definitely worth persevering with as an example of unusual film history that, up until recently, was thought lost.
Zum Beispiel: Fritz Lang is a 21 minute 1968 interview with Lang in German. It’s interesting to hear Lang talk so passionately about his early film work and to see clips from this work, allowing him to highlight key points. Lang and the interviewer, Erwin Leiser, appear to be in an office, smoking and chatting away, with Lang becoming quite animated later on.
It would have been worth buying M for disc one alone, but the extras make it a must buy for anyone interested in film classics.
M Masters of Cinema Edition will be released on February 22 and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.