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By Brad Cook | February 19, 2005

“M” was Fritz Lang’s first sound film, marking a successful bridge from the world of silents and presaging his later Hollywood work, which he undertook after fleeing Germany’s Nazi regime not long after releasing this movie in 1931. Watching it from the point-of-view of a modern moviegoer’s sensibility, I couldn’t help but be struck by how different it is from current thrillers. If “M” was remade today, I can only imagine it would focus on one lonely detective—played by Denzel Washington, probably—and his quest to find the serial killer, who most likely would spend the latter half of the film scurrying from hiding place to hiding place with his next victim held captive.

Lang, however, wasn’t interested in creating an in-depth character study here—except, of course, for his portrayal of the killer, Hans Beckert, who Peter Lorre plays with the same bug-eyed gusto that made him a popular character actor in Hollywood. Instead, Lang was interested in society and its reaction to Beckert’s killing spree, which involves luring helpless children to their demise. With each death, the public grows more hysterical, soon viewing any man who so much as interacts with a child as a prime suspect. In a sense, society itself is a character in the film, struggling with the clash between the emotional desire to find the killer and string him up and the rational understanding that he should be handed over to the police so that the courts can punish him.

The film takes its time setting up a seething cauldron of emotions, which boil over during a second half that pits the police against organized crime as both search for Beckert. The latter wants him because the killings have brought unneeded attention on the city’s underworld; it’s interesting to note that, even over 70 years ago and in another country, criminals still viewed crimes against children as the most heinous of offenses. When the criminals finally corner and capture Beckert, they place him before a kangaroo court that promises him full access to the rule of law. You know, however, that the mob assembled for the trial will not let him leave alive.

Lorre’s performance during this scene is masterful as he pleads for his life and insists that he cannot control his actions. Of course, who knows the mind of a criminal better than other criminals? The underworld has appointed a defense counsel for Beckert, and Lang uses this character to mount a not guilty by reason of insanity defense, which the “jurors” scoff at, much like the way many in our country today view such pleas. While Lang raises questions of how much control we have over our actions, and whether we’re liable for crimes we commit out of impulses we’re born with, he wisely refrains from answering them, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions.

The Criterion Collection’s original release of “M” was a bare-bones affair, but the company went back to the well for this two-disc set, putting together a nice array of supplements that includes a commentary, some documentary materials and a 32-page booklet. The commentary features film scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler discussing the film both in terms of what Lang was trying to convey through the story and how those ideas fit into the larger socio-economic situation in Germany at the time. It’s an academic track that eschews technical notes in favor of a lecture-style discourse that’s aimed directly at viewers who like to dig into their movies.

That sense of academia extends to the extras contained on the second disc, which leads off with a 49-minute conversation with Lang conducted by venerable director William Friedkin. Filmed over a two-day period in 1975, the Q&A features Lang discussing his entire career, beginning with his childhood and his early films, with a focus on the making of “Metropolis” and “M.” A preface warns us that Lang was notorious for “misremembering” the facts of his life, especially his flight from Germany in 1933, but we’re told that such embellishments only shed further light on the mind of an accomplished storyteller. All one can do is give him a pass and be glad that he never entered politics.

“M” producer Seymour Nebenzal is also represented in the form of a 15-minute interview with his son, Harold, who talks about not only the elder Nebenzal’s work with Lang but also his efforts producing such films as “Pandora’s Box” and “Westfront 1918.” Harold assisted his father with the production of a Hollywood remake of “M” as well as the film “Cabaret.” His discussion centers mostly on Seymour’s production company, Nero Films, and the nuts and bolts of the business side of filmmaking.

The academic look at “M” reaches its zenith with classroom lectures held by the film’s editor, Paul Falkenberg, at New York’s New School University in 1976 and 1977. Because the lecture was held as the film played in the classroom, this supplement recreates that experience, running the movie as Falkenberg talks about it and stopping the video when he wants to point something out or when a student asks a question that requires it. I should note, however, that this lecture was edited down for the DVD; it doesn’t replay the entire film.

“A Physical History of ‘M’” offers a 25-minute look at the film’s sketchy release history, during which some scenes were cut, with a few lost forever. The narrator discusses many other problems, such as the film’s funky 1.19:1 aspect ratio and the fact that portions of the movie were actually re-shot for use in France. Why anyone would feel the need to re-shoot part of a movie just to show it in another country is beyond me, but there you go. This supplement also explains Criterion’s approach to restoring the movie to something as close to the original as possible.

Finally, we have “M le Maudit,” a distillation of the film into a 10-minute version shot by Claude Chabrol for French television. It was part of a TV show that asked directors to remake their favorite movies in 13 minutes or less. As you might imagine, Chabrol hits the main plot points, complete with recreations of such shots as Beckert’s look of surprise when he discovers an “M” applied to his back with chalk. The actor playing the killer isn’t nearly as good as Lorre, but “M le Maudit” is an interesting exercise for those who like thinking about the mechanics of storytelling. An accompanying seven-minute interview with Chabrol digs into his love of the film and why he chose it for his experiment.

Disc two closes with a stills gallery broken into five sections: The Crime, The Search, Capture, Trial, and Posters and Documents. They cover both pre-production art and behind-the-scenes pictures taken during the making of the film. Those of you who enjoy non-moving supplements will also want to peruse the booklet that comes with this set. It includes the text of a scene that was cut from the film and never located as well as several essays, including one written by Lang, and an interview with the director.

Leave it to Criterion to take a classic and exhaustively cover it. Fans of “M” will be thrilled with this release, while anyone seriously interested in making movies for a living would be wise to purchase it and study its supplements, even if they haven’t seen the film before. As for you casual moviegoers, give this one a rental, if your favorite video store carries it, and educate yourself a bit about film history.

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