“M” (1931)

Directed by Fritz Lang
German, 110 Minutes
Starring Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Gründgens

Fritz Lang’s M is a surprising film, even today. It is a canonical classic – you can’t go anywhere without someone telling you how it is one of the greatest movies ever made. What is so surprising about it is just how enjoyable it is. This is not a film that needs deep analysis into plot. Everything that Lang wants to say is laid out for all to see. In M, it is easy to see that there are three main points that Lang wants to get across:

  1. The police and criminals act in a similar, methodical way. Just watch the scene where the two camps begin planning. The editing of the speeches drive this point home. What Lang is saying with this is that the only difference between police and criminals is the side of the law they are on.
  2. Mobs are almost always, always wrong and their inability to make the right decisions is always costly. They were wrong in M and they were wrong again in Fury. In M, though, unlike in Fury, they do get the right person but what they are wrong about is their choice of punishment. Then, there is the inherent hypocrisy: What gives criminals the right to judge a criminal?
  3. Finally: Calling all parents, keep an eye on your children. This is a point that runs through the entirety of the movie but is forgotten by all the characters. They suddenly seem to forget that there are children involved. The criminals’ drive to capture Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) is not in the name of the children, but to get their syndicates up and running again without police intervention. The police want to get Beckert because their reputation is slipping and they know that if random searches continue, the people will lose all confidence in them.

M feels like a standard crime procedural drama and was easily the first of its kind. Today, we could see M as a glorified Law & Order episode, but much more sophisticated. However, in 1931, there were no procedural dramas like this. Usually, the true criminal would not be revealed until the very end as nothing would be shown from his perspective. In M, we are shown Beckert’s process of evasion just as much as we are shown the police and criminals’ process of finding him.

You can’t write anything about M without talking about Lang’s all-important use of sound. This film came out in a time when musicals were all the rage and every second of the screen had to be filled with sound. However, for his first sound film, Lang decided to treat it as another tool to strengthen the story as much as editing and camera work. Upon first viewing, these stretches of silence might seem jarring, but they are so perfect that once you begin revisiting the film over and over again, you realize how necessary it is.

Criterion has had a long history with M and it has really become one of their flagship titles. They first released it on laserdisc and then on a bare-bones DVD without even a trailer. In 2004, after a new print was remastered and released, they put out a stacked two-disc set. In May of this year, they released a Blu-Ray version that included all of the two-disc’s features plus the newly-discovered English print of the film. The English print is in horrible shape, so its presence is for nothing more than a passing curiosity. It also has Lorre’s first true English performance, as he re-filmed his entire speech at the end in English. His English performance, though, seems held back. In German, he goes no-holds-barred, giving one of the greatest showcases in all of cinema. Again, all other features date back to 2004. Most of them are very important such as the physical history of M and the 50-minute Conversation with Fritz Lang.

Most of the packaging is carried over as well, just adapted to the current Wacky-C style and the shorter BR case. The disc art is new, of course and the 30-page book, with all its informative essays and articles, is also retained.

The Verdict: Absolutely necessary in every way, M is a film that you will want to watch over and over again.

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