Combustible Celluloid
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With: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widman, Inge Landgut, Otto Wernicke, Theodor Loos, Gustaf Grundgens, Friedrich Gnass, Fritz Odemar, Paul Kemp, Theo Lingen, Rudolf Blumner, Georg John, Rosa Valetti
Written by: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang
Directed by: Fritz Lang
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: German with English subtitles
Running Time: 110
Date: 05/11/1931

M (1931)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Killer Can't Help It

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Even after 75 years, Fritz Lang's first German talkie works beautifully as a carefully constructed thriller and police procedural. Child murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) causes a citywide panic with his crafty methods and cryptic messages to the press. The police step up their investigations to such a degree that they interfere with the day-to-day dealings of the criminal underworld. So the criminals take it upon themselves to catch the killer so that they can get back to business.

Even on a casual viewing, Lang handles these events with such serrated precision that they practically slice the screen. No one ever forgets the underground kangaroo court in which the cornered Hans desperately pleads his case ("I can't help myself!"), and Lorre drives the scene home with one of the screen's greatest performances.

But upon closer look, M gets even better. Lang's pulpy story covers up an astonishing command of cinematic language and a masterful use of sound, especially commendable during the early days of talkies. Looking only at the opening minutes of the children playing in the street and the way the voices carry through the courtyard causes chills. Lang's camera movements and use of lighting come into play when Hans tries to hide among the clutter in a storage room. It becomes clear upon a deeper investigation that the film isn't about cops and robbers and murderers at all. It's about everyone's responsibility toward children, and hence the future.

The Criterion Collection's new, updated DVD of M goes a long way in helping us to fully appreciate this classic. It's one of the few DVDs whose extras actually contribute something. The commentary track by Anton Kaes (author of the BFI Film Classics volume on M) and Eric Rentschler (author of The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife) brilliantly illuminates moments in the film that would otherwise pass us by without a thought. Director Claude Chabrol further explains the film's brilliance with his 1980s attempt at an abbreviated remake. Best of all, this two-disc set contains William Friedkin's feature-length, sit-down interview with Lang, conducted in 1975. The disc comes with many other extras, including a 32-page booklet with several different articles and essays. Criterion had already released M on DVD back in the late 90s, and though I haven't seen that version, I can guess that this new one eclipses it. This version also presents the film in its proper aspect ratio of 1.19:1, which requires black bars on the sides of the picture to give it its proper height. This is the best DVD I've seen so far in 2005.

In 2010, Criterion released a Blu-Ray edition. It contains all the extras from the DVD, plus an uncompressed monaural soundtrack for the feature film, and the long-lost English-language version of the movie.

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