REVIEW: DVD Release: M

Film: M
Release date: 22nd February 2010
Certificate: PG
Running time: 110 mins
Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann
Genre: Thriller
Studio: Eureka
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Country: Germany

The Masters of Cinema series delivers the restored director’s cut of Fritz Lang’s much acclaimed monochrome thriller.

The story centres on a series of child murders in a German city that are terrifying the residents and confounding the police.

We join the action after eight children have died. Little Elsie Beckmann, unwittingly accompanying the killer on her way home from school, becomes his ninth victim. The scene of Elsie’s desperate mother calling for her as an empty place at the dinner table comes into view, is truly harrowing.

Lang then opens things out to show how these events are preying on the city. Fear and paranoia grip the general population, as every mother fears her child will be next, neighbour turns on neighbour, and men are attacked for just being near a child in the street. An exhaustive round-the-clock police search of every bush, flophouse and underworld joint in town turns up little except some cigarette butts and a used sweet bag. ‘The people just don’t understand they have a collective responsibility in this,’ says an exasperated police chief.

That collective responsibility arrives from an unexpected source. The underworld bosses, alarmed at the attention the intense police effort is bringing their own activities, determine to catch the killer themselves. In a wry swipe at authority, Lang alternates scenes depicting the meeting of the gangland chiefs, with similar scenes of a police meeting, so that it becomes hard to tell which group are the criminals. At one point, a gesture begun by a gangland boss is completed by the police chief.

Ultimately, it is the collective action of two outcast elements of society – the underworld and the beggars – that will decide whether the killer can be brought to justice…

Lang deftly takes a step back to examine the very notion of justice, of crime and punishment, of collective and individual responsibility for our actions. Since the killer admits he is compelled to act the way he does by his mental state and not out of choice, is this all the more reason to execute him, as the only certain way to prevent him killing again in the future? Or does his compulsion to kill mean he is not responsible for his actions, and therefore should not be punished? ‘Does a man who is sick need a court of law or a doctor?’ as one character puts it. And are all these questions just moot points, when any form of justice will not bring the children back to their mothers, nor make the city feel any more secure that another killer could not do the same again?

The rise of National Socialism provides obvious real-life parallels to the themes Lang employs in the film. The Jewish actor Peter Lorre, who brilliantly portrays the frighteningly ordinary killer Beckert, was to flee Germany soon after filming, while half-Jewish Lang would follow suit two years later, after a somewhat frank meeting with Nazi propaganda chief Goebbels. Yet the popular myth that Lang changed the name of the film (from The Murderers Are Among Us to M) in fear of Nazi reprisals, is untrue. Inspired by the ‘M’ that one of the characters chalks on his hand, Lang altered the name during filming because he thought it would be a more interesting title. In any event, the Nazis banned the film in 1934.

Lang’s inspiration for such groundbreaking work is uncertain. Some claim the story is based on the crimes of serial killer Peter K├╝rten in the 1920s, but Lang denied this. His interest in police forensics is apparent, however – the intense search for clues and examination of fingerprints and handwriting are amazingly detailed for a science in its infancy at the time.

Whatever his inspiration, Lang produced a true masterpiece with M, ahead of its time. Voted the most important German film of all time by the German Cinema Association, it was not only the nation’s first talkie, but the first about a serial killer, pre-empting the film noir genre to follow. His use of real criminals for the underworld gangs (twenty-four were jailed after filming), and his insistence at throwing the long-suffering Lorre down the cellar steps over a dozen times to get the right shot, are measures few, if any, of Lang’s contemporaries would have taken in pursuit of authenticity. The subject matter was shocking for a 1930s audience and MGM studio boss Irving Thalberg, while declaring its greatness, admitted he would have run a mile from such material.

The black-and-white photography, gloriously restored here in high definition, is the perfect vehicle for Lang’s use of light and shade and lurking shadows, while his sparse use of sound (some scenes are intentionally silent) merely enhances the atmosphere.

You might think you’ve seen this film before. What you’ve probably seen is the heavily edited 1960s release, which not only cut twelve precious minutes, but clumsily patched in additional sound to make, well, rather a mess of things. This ‘Ultimate Edition’ puts all this right, with sharp, high definition transfer of the full 110 minutes, cleaned up digital mono sound and the deliberately unsettling 1:19:1 aspect ratio of the original.

Of all the films he directed, M remained Lang’s favourite. What seems hard to believe now is that he only made it to regain his reputation after the failure of his two previous efforts. One of those was Metropolis. Time has judged Fritz Lang rather more favourably. CS

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