It is Hans Beckert, a serial child murderer who baits his victims--little girls, like Elsie Beckmann--with balloons. It’s the kind of behavior that keeps newspapers in business and mothers in constant fear.
The murders are hurting local businesses; the police staff’s surveillance techniques are proving useless; and criminals cannot carry on with their activities with police crawling the streets for Beckert day and night. So all the residents--parents, police, the underworld--more similar than not, team up to find, brand and persecute Beckert.
It is a Manhunt, so much so that it’s perfectly plausible to conclude that the “M” of the title may refer to it, though one could just as easily settle on Molester or Monster. (Most will land on Murderer, even not knowing the film’s original title was Mörder unter uns, or Murderer Among Us).
The murderer is played by Peter Lorre in a role that launched his career, which would see him in peculiar, bug-eyed supporting roles. Here, he is fragile, scared and helpless--exactly the intentions of director Fritz Lang and then-wife Thea von Harbou’s script, which climaxes in a memorable basement scene, where a cornered Beckert admits, “I can’t help what I do…I don’t want to, but must!” The script, wise and unique, never attempts to dissect or forge a backstory for Beckert, but rather asks, Who knows what it’s like to be such a person?
Though M was Lang’s first sound film, greater attention and significance is placed on the camerawork than the microphone (though the atmosphere assembled by the sound department is nearly unmatched for the era). The cinematography by Fritz Arno Wagner (who worked with early iconic German directors like F.W. Murnau and G.W. Pabst) is moody and shadowed (exactly how the audience first “sees” Beckert), traits that would hint at Lang’s future career in Hollywood, where he directed a number of influential film noirs, like The Woman in the Window (1944) and The Big Heat (1953).
But Lang, a master director of crime, science-fiction and noir, and whose career spanned over 40 years, would not equal the brilliant, unsettling M, one of the landmark pictures of the early sound era.
Conversation with Fritz Lang (49:27): This film, which contains interviews conducted by director William Friedkin over two days in 1975, has Lang discussing his life and career. While the introductory card does note that “Lang was not a reliably truthful interview subject,” his stories (and insight) do still fascinate for the duration.
The English Version (1:32:43): This print of M was discovered in the British Film Institute archives in 2005 “thanks to the persistence of German film scholars Robert Fischer and Hans-Michael Bock.” It is notably shorter than the German version and contains a “mix of dubbing and reshoots.”
A Physical History of M (25:09): This documentary provides a very detailed history of Fritz Lang’s 1931 film, with primary attention paid to the various edits and international versions of M. Clips accompany the voiceover narration.
Claude Chabrol’s M le maudit (10:44): Director Chabrol’s (Le boucher) short, aired in 1982 on the television program Cine parade, is a short, condensed version of Lang’s film, with Maurice Risch in the Peter Lorre role. Also included is a Chabrol interview (6:47).
Harold Nebenzal Interview (14:32): Here, Nebenzal (who worked with Bob Fosse and Ingmar Bergman in the ‘70s) discusses the work of his father, Seymour Nebenzal, producer of The Threepenny Opera, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and, of course, M.
Paul Falkenberg’s Classroom Tapes (36:06): These audio excerpts from 1976 and ‘77 have the M editor sharing thoughts with and fielding questions from students from New York City’s New School. Footage from the film accompanies the discussion.
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is a 32-page booklet featuring an essay titled “The Mark of M” by film critic Stanley Kauffmann, text from a missing scene, three articles that “give a picture of the events--and controversies--surrounding the film at the time of its release,” and interview with Fritz Lang.