M is Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece (also his first sound film), and it was released on DVD as Spine #30 of the Criterion Collection in 2004. It’s now available on Blu-Ray, and it’s also part of Criterion’s Essential Art House 50-DVD Set.
Hans Beckert (the talented and hypnotically compelling Peter Lorre) is a serial killer, whistling a fatefully recognizable tune (“In the Hall of the Mountain King,” to be precise) as he closes in on innocent children (such as little Elsie Beckmann early in the film). Numerous “Wanted” posters line the streets asking “Who is the murderer?” Parents are anxious and afraid, and police are searching futilely for clues, answers and suspects. It isn’t until vigilante citizens, including beggars, mothers and even other criminals, take law enforcement into their own hands that Hans is made to face his crimes, and the townspeople are likewise made to evaluate their own negligence and the part it has played in the child murders. The film serves as both a suspenseful psychological thriller and a searing social commentary that questions responsibility and blame, and examines justice, madness and mass hysteria.
There’s always more to be said for this film– a complex classic that remains chilling and deeply unsettling to this day. Lang expertly focuses the camera on the simplest and most haunting visuals, all perfectly placed and positioned within the frame— little Elsie’s ball rolling into a ditch, for instance, or the balloon that Hans buys her floating up to the telephone wires where it becomes ensnared. These visuals induce dread without showing us what truly happened to Elsie— with these visuals, we already know what has happened, and our minds are left to fill in the horrid details. It’s moments like these that make the film so effective.
Later, when a blind beggar recognizes Hans’ whistling, he initiates a chain reaction of makeshift law enforcement, and soon our stalker becomes the stalked. One man, in the aims of not losing Hans, draws the letter ‘M’ (for the German word for “murderer”) on his own hand and pretends to trip and fall, thereby stamping Hans’ back with the classification. The image that graces the cover of the Criterion DVD is perhaps the most iconic of the entire film— Hans and his reflection, as he sees the letter which now defines him.
The first half of the film really succeeds in the realm of psychological thriller and suspenseful drama—a visually rich and impeccably paced masterwork filled with terror and unease. The faux court sequence toward the end of the film though, which finds Hans pleading with his amateur judge and jury about the compulsion he has to kill and the regret he experiences after he acts on these urges, is where the harrowing social commentary really takes center stage. His captors seem like monsters too, and the lines are blurred between heroism and criminality. The film’s finger-pointing is ever shifting, ever permeable, and ever complicated, as evidenced most by the mothers’ realization that Hans’ real trial and sentencing won’t bring their children back, and that it was their responsibility— as a society— to keep closer watch over the children. This is certainly a distressing notion with which to conclude an already brilliant-but-bleak film— Hans’ crimes were so easy to commit and get away with, his madness so easy to satisfy, because of systemic failures and weaknesses.
I’m not picky, since this is admittedly the only Criterion film I own, so I’ve always been quite pleased with these supplements. My favorite is the 32 page booklet it comes with, featuring an essay by film critic Stanley Kauffmann, an interview with the always fascinating Lang from 1963, and the script for a missing scene; it’s the one supplement that I’ve pored over numerous times.
The second disc has some cool features too, though. While I’m not too fond of Claude Chabrol’s short film inspired by M, called M le maudit, the [now former] film student in me loves the classroom footage of M’s editor Paul Falkenberg discussing the film and its history. And while I’m mostly indifferent about the interview with Harold Nebenzal (son of M producer Seymour Nebenzal), I think A Physical History of M is interesting, especially combined with the behind-the-scenes photos and production sketches also included; the film’s visual language is what really drives home its social commentary after all, so I find it extremely rewarding to be enlightened as to how this language was conceived and achieved, and to understand the ways in which this language can help fill us with so much dread time and time again.
Criterion Grade: B+
Film Grade: A