Fritz Lang’s 1931 morality tale about impartial democratic justice versus vigilante retribution remains frighteningly prescient in our modern world. A child rapist and murderer is on the loose terrorizing Berlin, every parent’s worst nightmare incarnate in flesh and bone, thick with the blood of innocent victims.
The narrative is structured as a police procedural rather than a criminal psychological dissection; focusing on the investigation and the burgeoning frustration of law enforcement. Lang’s expressionist style suggests the crimes rather than showing the grotesqueries. As a little girl plays with a ball, an innocuous whistling stranger befriends her and buys her a balloon thus gaining her limited trust. We know what happens because Lang shows us the ball rolling slowly through the grass, coming to a dead stop. We then see an image of the balloon floating helplessly into the overhead wires. Lang’s cinematic genius is obvious in another scene as the killer looks through a shop window spying the reflection of a lonely little girl: all sound stops, his eyes widen, his features contort into madness as we fear for the little child. Lang also moves his camera in one continuous shot around a deli, stopping to observe minor details, and up and through a glass partition: surely this influenced a young Hitchcock!
As the death toll mounts, the police aren't any closer to solving the crimes and they begin to arrest the usual suspects looking for clues. The criminal underworld begins their own search because the constant police raids are bad for business. They enlist the help of the poor and destitute and it’s the blind beggar who recognizes the killer’s signature tune that leads to his capture.
The criminals pass their own judgment upon this killer; this is truly a trial by peers! But without the Rule of Law then society will plunge into anarchy: self-rule works well as a philosophy but it’s the powerful that abuse the weak in reality. Even a child molester has the right to Due Process. And yes, he’s guilty regardless of his own assessment: his premeditation is legal proof of intent, and his writing to the newspaper and covering up his actions shows he understood the concept of right and wrong at the time he committed the crimes. Now it’s the government’s duty to pass judgment upon his acts, to punish this murderer with all jurisprudence.
Final Grade: (A+)
Blu-ray (1 disc); DVD (2 discs)
- New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
- Audio commentary by German film scholars Anton Kaes, author of the BFI Film Classics volume on M, and Eric Rentschler, author of The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife
- The long-lost English-language version of M, from a nitrate print preserved by the British Film Institute (Blu-ray only)
- Conversation with Fritz Lang, a 50-minute film by William Friedkin
- Claude Chabrol’s M le maudit, a short film inspired by M, plus a video interview with Chabrol about Lang’s filmmaking techniques
- Video interview with Harold Nebenzal, son of M producer Seymour Nebenzal
- Classroom audiotapes of editor Paul Falkenberg discussing the film and its history, set to clips from the film
- Documentary on the physical history of M, from production to distribution to digital restoration
- Galleries of behind-the-scenes photographs and production sketches
- New and improved English subtitle translation
- Plus: A booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Stanley Kauffmann, the script for a missing scene, three contemporaneous newspaper articles, and a 1963 interview with Lang