on March 2, 2004
The city of Berlin (during pre-WWII Germany) is wrought with hysteria as a cunning child-killer stalks the streets. To hasten the capture of the murderer, the police clamp down tightly on local criminal activity, making business-as-usual activities nearly impossible for members of the city's organized-crime syndicate. So in an effort to return the city to its previously permissive state of affairs, the local mobsters decide to hunt down the elusive homicidal pedophile themselves.
This compelling study of a pedophilic serial killer and the public reaction to his odious crimes was decades ahead of its time in its treatment of psychological, political, and sociological themes. The first "talkie" from pioneering auteur Fritz Lang--probably better known to fans of classic cinema as the director and artistic force behind 1927's groundbreaking, trendsetting silent SF classic METROPOLIS--1931's M is more than just a crime thriller. It is actually a subtle comment on the sense of security that modern "civilized" people so blithely accept. Lang so effectively blurs the line separating institutions of law from crime syndicates that he leaves viewers questioning whether or not society's leaders are actually capable of keeping its citizens safe and secure. And indeed, Lang had good reason to pose such a question, as the Nazis were already on the rise in Germany at the time he was making M. The film barely veils Lang's disgust for the Germany of that period--a Germany that could birth and foster a philosophy of hatred like Nazism--since the Berlin he depicts is dark with dirt and grime and the people all seem to have bloated, gnarly faces that are twisted into perpetual scowls. That being the case, it is no surprise to learn that Lang employed actual Berlin residents and real-life members of the city's criminal underground to fill several supporting roles.
M is also notable as the film that launched Peter Lorre into the international spotlight. Lorre's gutwrenchingly emotive portrayal of a human monster who is unable to control his evil, deviant sexual impulses is nothing short of stellar. Unfortunately, this performance also resulted in his being typecast, and it was afterwards difficult for him to secure roles outside of the noir or horror genres, even after his emigration to Hollywood.
Released the same year as Tod Browning's classic Lugosi vehicle, DRACULA, M is actually the scarier of the two. Although Lang's intention was for M to reflect the decaying and diseased society that WAS Germany during the years that culminated with World War II, it reflects just as poignantly the anger, violence, and social ambiguity so prevalent in today's world. And that is very frightening indeed.
The Criterion Collection DVD offers a visually stunning restored version of M in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and at its original 111-minute running time. The disc plays the film with the original German-language soundtrack, but optional English subtitles are available. Unlike many Criterion discs, there are no additional bonus features, but the opportunity to watch this remarkable and historic film as its legendary director intended makes amazon.com's less-than-suggested-retail price very reasonable. Definitely a must-see for students of cinema, aficionados of classic films, and fans of the noir or thriller genres.
on August 6, 2009
Fritz Lang said that this movie was the best he's ever done in his entire life. I agree, because this movie is thrilling, from beginning to end. It tells the story of a child killer who is chased both by the police and the criminals. This movie is not only one of the greatest films ever made, but it is also one of scariest thriller you'll ever see. Because one thing that make it scary, it's simply because there's no music, not even in the title screen. The final scene is the best when the criminals judge the killer for his action in some kind of basement, it's also the only movie ever to really show the people in the jury, this scene show their emotions, their anger, their hatred to this man. Peter Lorre is fantastic as the killer, but the best performance, in my opinion, goes to Gustaf Gründgens as the crime boss and the ''judge'' of the ''court house''. So if you see it somewhere, check it out.
Rating: Thumbs way up !
on December 22, 2003
M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
It has been said that behind every crime story ever committed to film lies the shadow of M. That may well be true, though Lang (and others) were making crime dramas long before this (the first Dr. Mabuse movie was made nine years previous, for example). Still, there is a great deal here to warrant the speculation.
Loosely based on the story of Fritz Haarmann, the Werewolf of Dusseldorf (whose story was also the basis for the more recent Tenderness of the Wolves), M is the story of a child murderer, Franz Becker (the screen debut of the astonishing Peter Lorre), and the simultaneous attempts by the police and a crime syndicate to track him down. The suspense builds quickly (perhaps too quickly; the restored version, released in 2000, is almost twenty minutes shorter than Lang's original theatrical release) as Becker tries to evade both the law and the criminals while plying his trade.
The film might have been a simple crime thriller, above average but not really rising head and shoulders above the crowd (in the same way, for example, Hitchcock's The Thirty-Nine Steps is enjoyable, but it's not Psycho or North by Northwest) but for one thing: Peter Lorre. He almost sleepwalks through the first three-quarters of the film in an air of perfect menace, uttering perhaps three lines throughout. Then, in the final quarter, when pressed to the wall, he unleashes a stream of monologues so perfectly acted and inexpressibly brilliant that the viewer can do nothing but stand in awe of Lorre's power to both act like a man in fear of his life and engender the sympathies of film viewers everywhere at the same time, despite our knowledge of his guilt. (As a side note, this is one of the many differences between Franz Becker and Fritz Haarmann; the latter was quite happy to die, at anyone's hands, instead of going back to an insane asylum. He protested not at all on his own behalf, after his capture.)
It might also be said that behind every criminal trial since also lies the shadow of M, as the contents of Lorre's monologues are now standard defenses in criminal trials around the world every day. But try not to hold that against this compelling, awe-inspiring film. ****
on December 15, 2003
In 1931 Berlin, 8 children have fallen victim to a murderer. Suspicion abounds on the city streets, and the police have very few leads to follow. To expand their search for the killer, the police raid the dens of the underworld, infuriating the crime bosses. How could the police think that a murderer of children would be included in their ranks!! They may be theives and prostitutes, but even they wouldn't stoop so low as to harm a child. In an effort to rid themselves of such a terrible mark, the criminals take it upon themselves to track down and to bring their own form of justice this terrible person.
"M" is Fritz Lang's first "talkie" and is filled with great camera shots and very little sound. Sound is only used when necessary, giving this a great mix of the silent era and the new age of the talking pictures. The story is wonderfully told and displays one of the finest performances of Peter Lorre's acting career. His portrayal of the child killer is chilling and beautifully acted. An incredible film.
on June 8, 2003
In this day and age, psychological drama is a dime a dozen. I can think of several. Seven. Silence of the Lamb. To name two. Yet way back when...even before I was a twinkle in my parents eyes...or a crash on their credit cards and wallets (lo those many years ago)...there was this little film, M.
M. is one of the greatest of dramas, of a psychotic killer that...as the story moves along...though he is unbelieveably evil in his killings of children...you and I as a audiance grows to have an interest in. Peter's character in M. makes Hannibal look weak, because Peter is able to derive out of you so many emotions...anger, fear, sorrow, anquish. Who is the real villain in this? Yes Peter's character must pay for his crime, for in any logical and thought driven society such actions as he does call for punishment. Yet the way the avengers in this film, the hunting crime bosses and their lackies...you hate them for the way they deal with Peter's character in the end. You can't help it, you want to see Peter's character pay, but the way the criminal syndicate makes him pay for the crimes, you will be left tormented as the credits roll.
I have to think that Lang was probably gaining some of the feelings and attitudes of this movie by the horrors of the growing Nazi party and their sinister evils that were only shadows in the background of Germany's rush for nationalism after the toils the country had to pay for in reperations toward the Allies after W.W. I. I of course could be wrong, but that is my assessment anyway. Take it or leave it.
If you want a true scare, get this. If you enjoy thought provoking movies, get this. If you enjoy period movies, get this. It is just that simple.
on June 3, 2003
Let me start off by talking about the transfer. For a Criterion edition (and the pricetag attached to the Criterion name) the transfer is really quite lacking. The negative is rather scratched and there is that rather unfortunate presence of the white bar in the latter stages of the film. I understand that they were dealing with compromised film stock, but I refuse to believe that they were unable to restore the film to a greater extent.
Criterion compounds this problem with their notable lack of extras. No commentary or audio essay, no production notes, no publicity stills, no biographies or anything else. A poor effort from Criterion.
On the other hand, the film is presented in the original 1.17:1 format, and not at 1.33:1 as another reviewer has stated. Criterion confuses this by stating that it is presented at a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but in reality there are black bars at the sides of the screen. I suppose that this is nominally a 4:3 aspect ratio (as opposed to 16:9 enhanced) with reverse letterboxing being applied, if that makes any sense.
As for the film itself, I was quite impressed with it. It is a movie which is as relevant today as it was in the days it was made, a movie where the string of crimes would terrorize as many people today as it did then, and a criminal whom we are as unsure how to treat as they were then. In this respect we may regard M as being vastly superior to current fare, as it actually raises the sticky questions of responsibility versus compulsion instead of emptily condemning that which cannot be condoned.
Sure, it may strike us as being unrealistic that the police and the underworld are both trying to capture the same man (and for the same reason), but it's a conceit we are willing to believe in "Silence of the Lambs," not to mention "Cradle 2 the Grave," which was a straight up M remake.
One of the surprising elements of the film is how well it uses sound, considering that it is Fritz Lang's initial foray into the medium. In this sense it is an innovative work (like citizen Kane), as Lang has integrated sound in a way few directors today manage to do. We actually hear the murderer whistling before we see him, and you'll never listen to that little Grieg tune the same way ever again. It's interesting to observe the way sound is used at other stages of the film, as in some points there is no sound whatsoever, to the extent you might even start checking to see if there is something wrong with your speakers or DVD player. I don't know if it was the novelty of sound or what, but it seems like a lot of early directors were much more innovative in their use of sound (think of Eisenstein in Alexander Nevsky) and took advantage of it in ways modern directors don't think of. Sure, there are directors to whom sound is obviously important and who use it well (David Lynch and Wong Kar-Wai are a couple), but for most it seems like something of an afterthought.
At any rate I feel that this film holds up quite well, certainly more than other vintage films like Grand Illusion or Citizen Kane. The plot is largely as relevant today as it was when it was made (though thankfully we do not appreciate the commentary it offers on the nascent Nazi party or fascism) and the commentary on human nature is as true as ever. It is not best appreciated solely as a historic document or technical yardstick (which is how I regard the highly lauded Citizen Kane) but as a commentary on humanity and, above all, entertainment.
I was actually familiar with Peter Lorre before watching this movie, mostly from his extensive appearances on radio programs. That being said, I must say I found his performance rather tiresome, as he uses the same histrionics and tics (only this time they are in German, and not in the English I was used to hearing). Of course this isn't really fair to him, as he was no doubt being type-cast in his later American works, having made much of his reputation with this film. If you aren't familiar with his other work then you may find his performance really quite fine.
on May 1, 2003
First, let me say I'd like to split my review:
I give the film 5 stars, no question, but the dvd transfer only 3 stars.
First, the transfer:
This transfer is great given most of the available alternatives, at least in R1 North America. Its relatively clean, and the audio is adequate although there's some hiss and crackles and there's one spot where its missing sound for a few seconds.
There is one problem, though, and that is the fact that the aspect ratio (screen size) is not correct. M was shot with an aspect ratio of 1.17:1, not 1.33:1 as Criterion states. This was the standard aspect ratio of early German 'talkies' and Blue Angel, for example, was shot in this same 1.17:1 aspect ratio. Criterion has used the same film element that they used for their LD edition of M, one that originated from a private collection in Switzerland. As a result, their film is just slightly clipped compared to the original.
There is in fact a more recent restoration that is uniformly better in both video, audio and technical details (a different film element that went through a complete digital restoration a few years ago) but this is only available in a German only R2 disk (available from Amazon's German and British websites).
Anyway, my comments about the dvd technical details aside, M is one of the all time classics of cinema. If you've seen any thriller made after this film, then you've seen elements of M. The story involves the search for a serial murderer of children, played by Peter Lorre. The police start cracking down on crime all over Berlin, causing the underworld to become concerned about business. The crooks hold a meeting, and decide to find the killer themselves, using street people and beggars to help hunt him down: the result is a competition, almost, between crooks and police to catch the murderer. Who is more effective and why?
There are a many scenes that are incredibly memorable, and have been copied repeatedly since this film. Trust me, when you see M you'll recognize how well the film has stood the test of time, and how often imitated its been. Perhaps one of my favorite scenes involves simultaneous meetings (in separate locations) between the police officials on one hand and the mob on the other. The film switches back and forth between the two in a seamless fashion, showing how both more or less have the same problem but completely different motivations.
M is early filmmaking at its best.... you should see this film just to appreciate how often its been imitated in the years since.
on April 19, 2003
M both made and broke Lorre's career. It made him into an international success and sent him soaring into the limelight. But it immediately type casted him; leading him into mostly villianous roles. The movie is the first film that shows police procedure. It is also the first to tackle the subject of serial killers. Lorre plays a dejected child killer who just can't "help himself". There's a terrific scene of Lorre staring at a young girl through a store window and obviously becoming sexually charged.
The idea of the criminals persuing Lorre and holding a kangaroo court is a wee bit silly, but the silliness is made up for the fact that the ending monologue is terrific. Lorre's frustration, self-loathing and desperation is what stands out in the movie. All the other actors don't hold a candle.
This is Lang's first venture into sound and of course he does a terrific job of directing; he never shows the murders, but simply implies it. And the part of the cops walking through the streets in complete silence is damn eerie and memorable.
My only problem is I wish the DVD had more extras. More about Lorre, more about Lang and more film facts.
M should be in every movie lover's collection.
*another top notch Lorre film to check out is the hard to find DER VERLORENE, Lorre's first and last directing stint. Very ahead of it's time!
on October 14, 2002
Fritz Lang's masterpiece "M" is clearly one of the greatest of the early sound features made by him or practically anyone else. Peter Lorre gives his greatest performance as a weasly serial killer of little girls, and we accompany him on a couple of his stalkings, the last of which have him marked by the underworld with the letter 'M' and sought out by the city's criminal element, so the police will take some of the heat off them. The sound is crude, obviously added post filming in many instances, but it doesn't reduce the power of one of the greatest of German imports.
A film this old (1931) is naturally not going to be in spotless condition, but I have to say that I was very disappointed with Criterion's unusually sloppy work on this film. Clearly little effort was put into making the print pristine with scratches, dirt, and missing frames all still marring the viewing experience (compare what Criterion did with THE LADY VANISHES or THE SCARLET EMPRESS which look practically brand new), and the white bar which crisscrosses the screen (similar to the problem with new prints of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI) is very annoying. I have seen film prints of "M" without this white bar. I can't understand why it couldn't have been digitally removed.
So, one star gets removed due to the nature of the disappointing transfer. The film should nevertheless not be missed!
on March 19, 2002
I am a fan of Fritz Lang, but not a fan of murder films. However, the Lang faniship overwhelmed my aversion to these crime films. I think what keeps me back is the gore. I think that depicted gore deadens your higher sensibilities. By the way, I work in a hospital, so it is not squeamishness son my part.
The key to this movie is Fritz Lang's incomparable eye. He has the palace and artistic symmetry that would have made him a great Renaissance and Baroque artist. Each scene is a masterpiece and a work of art. This cinematography is a dying art in the film industry, focusing on computer generated gimmicks and machine gun profanity to carry the film along. His style reminds us of Orson Welles, Gregg Toland, and Alfred Hitchcock. Film is primarily visual, and Lang exploits this primary dimension of filmwork to its utmost.
The black and white aspect to this film is powerful. Admittedly, black and white originally was to due to the poor technology, but it has advantages that color lacks. You feel shadows, and taste the darkness. For example, in Lorre's first scene, you just see his silhouette in shadow whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King." This creates an almost hysterical sense of suspense. You know someone is bad, but you don't see him. He becomes a phantom menace of colossal proportions. This film is almost a moving study of Ansel Adams gone psycho!
This film, however, is not mere eye-candy, but it raises many ethical situations. The plot is that a kiddy murderer is on the loose in Germany, so the cops crack down on all criminals. Realizing that their craft is in danger, the criminal underground unties in a sort of "thief's honor," and tries to take care of the murderer on their own. The film climaxes as the underworld capture the murderer and hold a trial on their own. The entire situation raises so many questions about ethics, morals, honor, and vigilantism.
The only drawback is that this talkie is in German, so your eye is constantly darting down to the dialogue.
I am glad that this DVD is out and this profound film will get more exposure. Yes, there was life before "Titanic," and we have much to learn from these classic filmmakers.