M (1931)

Review first published by Little White Lies

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“I have to roam the streets endlessly, always sensing that someone’s following me. It’s me! I’m shadowing myself! Silently – but I still hear it!”

This haunting declaration, coming from serial child killer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) near the end of M, may come across as a surprisingly (for its day) sympathetic defence of murderous compulsions – but it serves equally as a manifesto for all that was new in Fritz Lang’s film. Not only was M his first venture into sound, being one third silent and two thirds a talkie (“silently – but I still hear it”), but its combination of expressionistic chiaroscuro, moral murkiness and detailed police procedural made it a proto-noir (“I’m shadowing myself”), while its focus on the case of a sex maniac to the exclusion of any kind of romantic subplot made it a film without precedent. In a recording included in one of the audio commentaries on this disc, Lang claims he would never again enjoy such ‘complete independence on set’.

The result is a film that uses the search for a ‘monster’ – a manhunt carried out by press, public, police, criminals and even Berlin’s overlooked underclass of vagrants, invalids and beggars – to anatomise the monstrousness of an entire city. Here the papers give Beckert the hysterical publicity that he so craves. Here paranoid citizens turn on one another with malicious denunciations, as they did in the contemporary case of real-life serial killer Peter Kürten, ‘the Vampire of Düsseldorf’ – tried and executed in the same year that M was released. Here Police Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) is, despite his indefatigability, intuition and acumen, reduced by a single, memorable low-angle shot to a corrupt grotesque, all crotch and corpulence.

Here united felons (headed by Gustaf Gründgen’s Schränker), offended by the damage that Beckert’s freelance activities are doing to their own ‘business’, put the terrified killer on trial in a hypocritical travesty of the law, but also expose the law itself as wanting – as does the film’s oblique yet confronting final scene. From the moment a young victim’s ball is seen bouncing forlornly in a desolate field, all innocence seems lost, and as every suburb falls under Beckert’s long shadow, no-one ends up looking pretty.

Put simply, without M to show the way, there might have been no subsequent films in which a hidden killer unmasks the ills of the society around him – and that would leave the world without such indebted classics as Oshima Nagisa’s Violence at High Noon, Imamura Shohei’s Vengeance is Mine, Cédric Kahn’s Roberto Succo, Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder or David Fincher’s Zodiac. Fortunately this two-disc set from Eureka!’s Masters of Cinema Series does full justice to Lang’s vision. The film is presented in its painstaking 110-minute restoration from 2001, which is some 12 minutes longer than the version re-released in 1960, and only seven minutes shy of the original release’s recorded duration.

There is also, on the second disc, a 93-minute English-language version of the film from 1932, shot concurrently with the original for British audiences and featuring some different actors and alternative takes, as well as Lorre’s first performance in English. It is actually pretty dreadful – even the film’s most virtuosic long take is criminally interrupted by an English insert designed to replace some inconsequential on-screen German writing. Still, completists and the curious alike will no doubt be delighted to have this inferior doppelgänger of M made available to them alongside the genuine article.

Other extras include two scholarly commentaries, and an interview with Lang filmed in 1968, in which the interlocutor (a seated Erwin Leiser) is shown looking increasingly uncomfortable as Lang – known for his dictatorial manner – literally stands over him, looming ever closer, like Beckert with one of his diminutive victims. All of which is even more entertaining than Lang’s self-mythologising anecdotes about his encounters with the Nazi party before fleeing Germany forever in 1933.

Anton Bitel