M (1931)
By: Michael Helms on May 16, 2006  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
MRA (Australia). All Regions, PAL. 1.19:1 (Non-anamorphic). German DD 1.0. English Subtitles. 105 minutes
The Movie
Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Gustaf Grundgens, Theo Lingen Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur, Otto Wernicke
Screenplay: Fritz Lang, Thea Von Harbou
Music:Edvard Greig
Country: Germany
Almost 75 years to the day of its initial German release I sat down to take in M for what must be the second or third time in my life and was immediately and hopelessly drawn into this completely consuming tale of a child killer.

Loosely based on the life and crimes of Peter Kurten, M (originally scripted as The Murderer Among Us) begins with a rhyme sung by children based on the crimes of Fritz Haarmann. The film then quickly proceeds to visually telling its story in a highly effective way as it chillingly shows without violence but much implication a little girl who doesn't make it home from school one day. After the initial crime the impact is then shown on the general populace as people from all of society gather in small groups everywhere all over the bleak industrial city to discuss the mounting events.

Meanwhile, the instigator of the murder writes a note to the police as he whistles his theme. Soon no one is beyond being accused of suspicion as police efforts to trace the killer come up empty handed. As they attempt early formulations of forensic work, which also amounts to nothing, an executive police decision is made to come down hard on the criminal underworld of the city. Their reaction is to take action into their own hands as M becomes something more than a police procedural. M then evolves into a pure thriller as both forces rush to chase down their target. Suffice to say it all ends in a court room scene with few precedents but many antecedents. This scene itself is immortalised in a large four panel fold out on the inside of the digpak packaging.

While not as graphic a film as Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, M is every bit as brutally atmospheric with the performance of Peter Lorre still at the top of the psycho tree to this day. See it and believe it.
Despite several digital restorations the age of this black and white film ensures that it's never going to appear as slick as the transfer of your latest multiplex snotbuster. However, that's not to say that M comes on like some fifth generation VHS dub from Venezuela with a tracking problem. Instead M uses dolly shots, close-ups, crowd shots, and overhead shots like we've come to expect so that the minimal wear that now exists on it hardly detracts from viewing it.
Coming two years after the introduction of sound to commercial film the most immediately surprising aspect of M is its lack of sound. The soundtrack to M is used very sparingly with large slabs of silence interspersed between a sound design that was way advanced for it's time, incorporating off-screen sound effects with theme music that is whistled by it's protagonist (apparently by the director for Peter Lorre who couldn't) producing the cumulative effect of a bad dream. The sudden use of well-collected sound especially during street scenes, often has a jolting effect that reminds you that M isn't entirely manufactured fantasy. The dialogue (all German) is always front and central thanks to the mono soundtrack but well captured especially when reproducing the whispery high-pitched tones of Lorre. It's also amazing how effective children's rhymes can be in creating an atmosphere of unease. Having recently consumed A Nightmare On Elm Street and the work of Fernando Arrabal I can verify the universality and longevity of this effect but M did it first, expertly using it to traverse from blackness in the opening shot effortlessly segueing into it's bleak urban industrialised world.
Extra Features
The bulk of the hefty supply of extras on this two disc set are devoted to the history of restorations (digital and analogue) and re-releases of M. A 23 minute talking head documentary with one Peter Campbell sitting in an editing suite takes us through some of the more technical problems associated with the film's restoration in 2003. Campbell and his company IML are based in Melbourne. There's a four way commentary track that utilises two of the original German technicians who worked on the film's first major digital restoration as well as pertinent excerpts from an interview supplied and conducted by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich with Fritz Lang in 1965. There's a 'worked' photo gallery presentation with music, zooms and pans that investigates productions stills along with advertising and a programme for the film. A text history of Nero Film the innovative company behind the production joins the other text based biographies and filmographies supplied for Peter Lorre, Fritz Lang and Gustaf Grundgens. Three documentaries that range in length from 17 to 27 minutes taken from various time periods present an interview with Fritz Lang, M as horror film and M – The Film Restoration that traces the modern impetus and machinations behind the current release. A very interesting storyboard to screen comparison is also included. There's also 37 minutes of the audio interview created by Bogdanovich with Lang that rounds out what will give you a thorough grounding into the making and re-making of M. All are presented with fantastic animated menus. All in all a more comprehensive collusion of extras outside of a Weta release you're not likely to find.
The Verdict
When it came time to checking the credits on this film (and yes there is an error printed on the back of the slipcase) I was surprised to see how it seems to have faded from many modern horror film reference books. However, watching or re-watching M can be as exciting and instructive in a general sense as it for those seeking it out for Cinema 101. M, while creating one of the first serial killer thrillers, has much to offer in terms of pace and overall fear, especially in painting a picture of slow-burning mass moral panic. In short, M may be one of the creepiest PG rated films alive and should be a must-see for horror enthusiasts of every stripe.
Movie Score
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