M is significant both as director Fritz Lang's first non-silent movie and also as actor Peter Lorre's breakout performance. Released in 1931, it is acclaimed for its revolutionary use of audio within the context of editing, where it becomes a creative tool of storytelling instead of just a microphone for actors.
M is set in pre-Nazi Germany and tells the story of a town that falls prey to a mysterious child murderer who roams the streets. Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) is a mentally troubled loner who wanders the city, nervously whistling a passage from Grieg's "Peer Gynt" suite and seeking out his young victims. After several missing children turn up dead, a pattern emerges that indicates a serial killer, although he remains elusive. The city is in hysterics as time drags on without a capture; the police are baffled, understaffed and begin a constant vigil of every corner of town. Even the criminals of the city band together to catch the killer, as his ramp-up of the police's watch makes their smaller crimes more difficult. It's never a mystery who the criminal is, and the pull of the movie comes from studying this horrific and troubled killer who both hides himself, but secretly wants to be relieved from his compulsion to kill. The subject matter is surprisingly dark for the period and touches on taboo topics that feel edgy even today.
More than just a villain and justice movie, M touches on several aspects of the psychology of culture and stability. The most striking is the growing hysteria of the masses. What starts as concern and prevention against the child murderer loose on the streets quickly turns into citizens turning on each other over misheard whispers of rumours. It's hard not to draw parallels with our own post-9/11 culture, where "innocent until proven guilty" has been flip-flopped in the name of prevention and security. The other interesting aspect of the movie is the very organised criminal underworld. Every area from safe-cracking to panhandling on the street operates as an established and largely expected level of society. But when the child murderer emerges, things tip too far on the impropriety scale, which hurts the "honest" criminals as much as anyone else. To this segment of the population, it's as if there is a function for crime in society, and if properly kept in balance is as much a part of daily rhythm as anything else.
It's difficult to discuss the merits of the actual movie without also touching on the first-rate restoration on display here. M was Fritz Lang's first non-silent film, and as such incorporates some experimental (for the time) uses of audio and overall editing. Mood is able to be set by sound before its visual sources are scenes, and discussions between different parties in the film are tightly edited to create an ongoing social conversation. But without this new cleaned-up and stabilised presentation, some of those touches might not at first seem as impressive as they actually are. Here – with the benefit of non-jittery frames and a transfer that doesn't inherently show the wear on a decades-worn print – is a very impressive bit of filmmaking that at every turn feels 20 years ahead of its time. The tight editing and clear audio of M is remarkable, and one can easily get lost in the story and Peter Lorre's engrossing performance, without ever even giving a second though to the fact that this movie is almost 80 years old.
M looks astounding. Not only does the restoration bring new life to a very early sound movie, but the film itself is dramatically shot and simply a joy to watch. The amount of correction and debris removal included here becomes more apparent as you compare it to versions and clips within the bonus materials, where there is a vast difference in quality, and Criterion's work shines through. Also worthy to note is the access they had to original source materials and detailed notes from Fritz Lang on how the film should be presented. Although on the whole this release is slightly darker than the mastering used for other regional releases of this restoration, the black levels here seem much more rich and natural (when compared to screen shots of other versions), and are in accordance with the director's original wishes.
There is only one audio offering, an uncompressed monaural LPCM 1.0 track of the original German with optional subtitles. The audio restoration is as clean as that of the video, and gives ample life to the track. As a dialogue-driven film, with virtually no score, the audio sections are even more exposed and deliver on all counts. A top-notch presentation all around.
There is a wealth of material to dig through on this release. First up is a commentary track by German film scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler, which is a very interesting analysis of both Lang's filmmaking and intent with M, as well as a discussion on the societal issues presented, in light of the state of Germany at the time. A full English-language version of the film (HD, 92:43) is mostly a dubbed version of the original, although there are a few alternate scenes filmed in English, most notable of which is a full English performance of Lorre's speech at the end of the film. "Conversations with Fritz Lang" (HD, 49:27) is an interview with the director, where he reminisces on M, fleeing Nazi Germany, and his approach to filmmaking in general. Claude Chabrol's "M le maudit" (HD, 10:44) is a short re-enactment/homage to the original, and also includes an interview with Chabrol (HD, 6:47) about making the short and his appreciation of Lang's craft.
One of the more interesting items is an interview with Harold Nebenzal (HD, 14:32), who is the son of the founder of Nero Films, which released M. He touches on German film from that period and Nero Films' impact on what would become the independent studio model. There are audiotape recordings of editor Paul Falkenberg's discussions with film students (HD, 36:06, synced to relevant footage from the film), and although it's of some interest to hear directly from the editor, it's low on revelatory moments. "The Physical History of M" (HD, 25:09) discusses the journey of finding suitable original prints, as well as the extensive restoration efforts undertaken. Finally, there is an ample booklet, containing a handful of essays and articles, and perhaps of most interest, an additional interview with Lang about M.
Although the latest whiz-bang, 3D, and computerised movies all naturally benefit from high definition releases, it's some of the older classics that really seem to shine on the Blu-ray format. The restoration process involved is rarely minimal, but there is a rich history of film that's being given new life, and M is a fantastic example of this. The movie itself is still a dark and harrowing subject, and the cleaned up presentation yields some highly impressive – and innovative – filmmaking. That, and you may never listen to "In The Hall Of The Mountain King" the same way again.