Cast & Crew
The city of Dusseldorf is being terrorized by a child-murderer. When Elsie Beckmann is found murdered, the search intensifies involving not only the police but the criminal underworld who also hope to catch the killer so that the police presence will subside. Hans Beckert is identified as the murder and put on "trial" by the criminal mob.
Hertha Von Walther
Director Fritz Lang (who considered the film his personal favorite) collaborated on the screenplay for M with his wife Thea von Harbou who also co-scripted Lang's 1926 silent masterpiece Metropolis. Their plan was, in Lang's words, to depict "the ugliest, most utterly loathsome crime" imaginable, and the first script was about a person who sends anonymous letters. "But then we both decided that the most horrible crime was that of a child murderer," Lang later recalled.
Because he had directed a few crime thrillers during the silent era (including Spies (1928) and Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), Lang had several contacts within the Berlin police department. Through friends in the homicide bureau, he was able to meet several actual murderers, but the greatest source of dark inspiration was a man who, at the time of production, had not yet been caught. An apparently indiscriminate sadist and killer of men, women and children in Dusseldorf, Peter Kurten was eventually captured and guillotined in July of 1931.
Lang was frequently drawn to ideas of vengeance and justice, and never allowed the two to be reduced to simplistic terms (the 1936 lynch mob thriller Fury (1936) is a prime example). In M, the child murderer is pursued by the thieves and beggars of Berlin, who hope that his capture will reduce the number of arrests made within their own ranks by police. Once the killer falls into their hands, a kangaroo court is convened and Lang - in a rare cinematic move - allows the murderer to plead his case, thoroughly clouding the moral waters in this engaging, challenging thriller.
Lang originally titled his film Murderer Among Us but the ascending Nazi party objected to that title as possibly critical of their new ranks. Both Lang, whose mother was Jewish, and the film's star, Peter Lorre, who was Jewish (and, ironically, Hitler's favorite actor) eventually fled Germany for America, making M a significant milestone between the German Expressionist cinema of the past and the Nazi-controlled cinema on the horizon. Taking a drastically different course, Theda von Harbou remained in Germany as a Nazi screenwriter and eventually divorced Lang.
Peter Lorre was a complete unknown at the time M was made whose disarming, bizarre demeanor allowed him to play the role of the child murderer Franz Becker to perfection. Portraying the killer as a quiet, retiring creature whose gentle manner and appearance present a disarming facade to his inner demons, Lorre's portrayal of a serial killer was precedent-setting, paving the way for all of the "ordinary," killers-next-door who populate the modern criminal landscape. Lorre's portrayal of Becker was undoubtedly the most memorable of his career, though it doomed the actor to a lifetime of typecasting, forever consigned to playing heavies, perverts and psychopaths in films from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) to Mad Love (1935).
Director: Fritz Lang
Producer: Seymour Nebenzal
Screenplay: Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Jansen, Fritz Lang, Karl Vash, Thea Von Harbou, Egon Jacobson (article)
Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner
Music: Edvard Greig
Art Direction: Emil Hasler, Karl Vollbrecht
Principle Cast: Peter Lorre (Hans Beckert), Gustaf Grundgens (Schraenker), Ellen Widmann (Madaem Becker), Inge Landgut (Elsie), Otto Wernicke (Inspector Karl Lohmann), Franz Stein (Minister)
by Felicia Feaster
M (1931) - Fritz Lang's M on DVD
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
M (1931) - Fritz Lang's M on DVD
I can't help what I do! I can't help it, I can't...- Hans Beckert
The old story! We never can help it in court!- Criminal
What do you know about it? Who are you anyway? Who are you? Criminals? Are you proud of yourselves? Proud of breaking safes or cheating at cards? Things you could just as well keep your fingers off. You wouldn't need to do all that if you'd learn a proper trade or if you'd work. If you weren't a bunch of lazy bastards. But I... I can't help myself! I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me, the fire, the voices, the torment!- Hans Beckert
Do you mean to say that you have to murder?- Schraenker
It's there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently, but I can feel it there. It's me, pursuing myself! I want to escape, to escape from myself! But it's impossible. I can't escape, I have to obey it. I have to run, run... endless streets. I want to escape, to get away! And I'm pursued by ghosts. Ghosts of mothers and of those children... they never leave me. They are always there... always, always, always!, except when I do it, when I.... Then I can't remember anything. And afterwards I see those posters and read what I've done, and read, and read... did I do that? But I can't remember anything about it! But who will believe me? Who knows what it's like to be me? How I'm forced to act... how I must, must... don't want to, must! Don't want to, but must! And then a voice screams! I can't bear to hear it! I can't go on! I can't... I can't....- Hans Beckert
"There are more police on the street tonight than whores"- Pickpocket with 6 Watches
Peter Lorre's whistling was dubbed by director Fritz Lang.
The first big German sound movie.
The tune that Peter Lorre's character whistles is "In the Halls of the Mountain King," from the "Peer Gynt" suite, by Edvard Grieg.
Fritz Lang and Peter Lorre were Jewish and fled Germany in fear of Nazi persecution shortly after the movie's release.
Based on an article Fritz Lang read about the serial killer Peter Kuerten from Duesseldorf. Details have been changed (Kuerten was not a child murderer, for example) but some things resemble reality.
Limited re-release in United States June 1997
Released in United States January 2000
Released in United States on Video January 1986
Re-released in United States August 9, 2013
Fritz Lang dubbed Peter Lorre's singing.
Released in United States on Video January 1986
Released in United States January 2000 (Shown in New York City (Anthology Film Archives) as part of program "Kino International Retrospective" January 6-27, 2000.)
Limited re-release in United States June 1997 (restored)
Re-released in Paris December 12, 1990.
Re-released in United States August 9, 2013