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M(1930)

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Synopsis: In 1930s Berlin, a series of brutal child murders is disrupting the social fabric of the city. The killer, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), eludes capture and taunts the police with letters to the press. The public has descended into hysteria and false accusations. Although they are searching methodically for clues, the police, headed by Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), have turned up nothing so far. The city's underworld denizens, eager to restore order and to deflect the unwelcome public attention that has fallen upon them as of late, conduct a search of their own in order to seize Beckert before he kills again.

A staple of home video since practically the earliest days, Fritz Lang's masterpiece M (1931) has been available in versions of varying quality and length. Most, if not all, of them came from producer Seymour Nebenzal's 1960 re-release version, which made a number of significant changes to the original version of the film. Nebenzal's version opens with an orchestral rendition of the Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King," the tune which Hans Beckert whistles obsessively throughout the film. Nebenzal also added new sound effects to fill in portions of the soundtrack that Lang had originally--and deliberately--left silent. Lastly, Nebenzal excised about ten minutes' worth of footage, including the final tableau of grieving mothers.

Over the years, Enno Patalas and other film archivists have worked to restore footage cut from the film and locate the best surviving elements for each shot. The most important development in this regard was the recent discovery of the original camera negative for all but one reel of the film, enabling us to see M in a quality unimaginable until now. The film's production design strikes a perfect balance between geometric abstraction and realistic texture that seems the essence of Modernism, and the superior film elements in the new restoration make the conceptual force of the film's production design really stand out.

As part of the latest restoration effort headed by Martin Koerber, the film's soundtrack has also been returned to its original specifications. If you are already familiar with the older versions, this new restoration's soundtrack will change your perspective on the film as a whole. On the one hand, the long silent stretches make the film more clearly a product of the early sound era; on the other hand, the rigor and daring with which Lang and sound engineer Adolf Jansen designed the soundtrack comes through more clearly than ever. Some of the effects, such as the chorus of newspaper vendors emerging from the terrible silence after Elsie Beckmann's murder, are truly impressive in a way I don't recall hearing before. Seeing the new version, it is clear that Lang didn't include a musical soundtrack in the usual sense partly because he regarded the entire soundtrack--that is, the dialogue and sound effects--as a musical composition in itself.

Criterion's new 2-disc edition, which replaces the DVD replaces the 1998 Criterion edition of an older restoration, retains the same spine number but is in every other respect a new product. First and foremost is the new high-definition transfer, which takes advantage of the latest restoration elements and displays a degree of sharpness and richness of contrast unlike anything I have seen before for this film. Whereas the older version was transferred at the standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio, resulting in occasionally cramped compositions, the new transfer properly maintains the square-ish 1.19:1 aspect ratio of early sound films, giving the image a more perfectly balanced look overall. Considering the director Fritz Lang's and cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner's brilliant sense of composition, this is no small matter. The sound is as clearly reproduced as possible for a film of that era. The audio commentary track consists of an engaging conversation between two noted scholars specializing in German cinema, Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler. They make many keen observations about visual motifs in the film offering a wealth of information about the cultural and historical context. Kaes, incidentally, is the author of an excellent book on M that is part of the British Film Institute's Film Classics series.

Disc Two is crammed with supplementary features. A 25-minute documentary entitled A Physical History of M provides a clear and informative account of the film's different versions. Of particular interest is the generous selection of excerpts from the French-language version, which was shot simultaneously using French actors in many key roles, and an excerpt from the notorious Nazi-era documentary The Eternal Jew, which holds up Peter Lorre's performance as an example of "degenerate" art. Lang makes a great interview subject in Conversation with Fritz Lang, a 1975 interview conducted by William Friedkin and shot by William Fraker. While biographers have since called into question Lang's account of his meeting with Goebbels, it's a fascinating, vividly detailed story that would make a great movie in itself. In a newly videotaped interview Harold Nebenzal, the son of the late producer, talks extensively about Nero Films, Nebenzal's production company, and the 1951 American remake that Nebenzal made for Columbia. In another segment Criterion presents an audio recording of 1976-1977 class sessions led by the film's editor, Paul Falkenberg, in which he discusses the rationale behind editing choices for the film and offers observations about film editing and cinema in general. Claude Chabrol's 10-minute condensed version of M, entitled M le maudit and filmed in 1982 for the French television series Cine-Parade, seems like a clever idea on paper but plays like a bad student film. Much as I like Chabrol's work on the whole, this one is eminently skippable. The disc also includes a selection of production stills and design sketches by Emil Hasler, the film's art director, as well as images from the film's original program booklet and various promotional materials. One Argentinean poster even markets M as a horror film under the title The Black Vampire, complete with haunted house imagery. Lastly, the 32-page booklet accompanying the set contains an essay by Stanley Kauffmann, the German censorship board's script for a missing scene, a 1931 statement by Lang about the film, newspaper reviews from the initial release, and a 1963 interview with Lang.

When asked which of his films he considered the greatest, Fritz Lang replied M without hesitation, and I would have to agree. Metropolis, the other usual candidate, is a dazzling, if not wholly successful, combination of futuristic visuals and Victorian melodrama. M, in contrast, was and remains modern through and through, with its still-relevant vision of a serial killer, a sensationalist press, mass hysteria, and the dynamics of urban life. This is one of the essential works of the cinema, and Criterion's new edition opens up fresh perspectives even for those who are already familiar with it.

For more information about M, visit the Criterion Collection. To order M, go to TCM Shopping.

by James Steffen