Blu-ray M; Fritz Lang's masterpiece

Fritz Lang’s M starts with a murder. Not just any murder, but the killing of a child.

Fritz Lang€™s M starts with a murder. Not just any murder, but the killing of a child. As little Elsie Beckmann€™s mother waits anxiously for her daughter to arrive home from school, we see Elsie being lead away by the child-murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre). In a scene that could be the forefather of the modern thriller, Lang ramps up the tension by intercutting between the expectant mother preparing supper, and the child being lured to her eventual death. As the tension mounts, Lang€™s combination of two abstract images marks the end of little Elsie€™s life. As the mother calls out her name, Elsie€™s ball rolls out from a bush, coming to rest on the ground. The balloon used by the killer to lure Elsie to her death floats up into the sky and becomes entangled in overhead telephone wires € there€™s no hand left to hold it. These two images are a testimony to Lang€™s mastery of visual storytelling, combining to create meaning and convey emotion, implicitly symbolising the death of a child. Imagine the same scene in a modern film. Detailed flashes of violence, almost pornographic in comparison, which leave nothing to the imagination. What is so effective in Lang€™s treatment of the crime is his simple touch. Everything is implied by and contained within these two images. In a film about a child serial killer, Elsie€™s murder is the only death in the film, and even that occurs offscreen. The sexual nature of Beckert€™s crimes is alluded to later in the film by a police psychiatrist, but beyond that we are spared the horrific details. By leaving us to fill in the blanks, Lang€™s film has a far more powerful effect on the audience€™s collective imagination. As news of another victim spreads through the city, the people of Berlin begin to panic, suspecting each other of being the killer amid an atmosphere of paranoid hysteria. It€™s not long before pockets of mob violence break out across the city, as potential suspects are accused and attacked by the general public. With the police investigation leading nowhere, the criminal community decide to take matters into their own hands. Realising that the enhanced police presence on the streets is hampering their own criminal activity, the crime bosses set up an elaborate surveillance plan involving the city€™s beggars, in an attempt to catch the murderer. Meanwhile the real killer remains absent from the first half of the film. When he does finally reappear, we see him gaze longingly into a shop window at a display of knives. When he sees the reflection of a young girl behind him, Beckert becomes transfixed, unable to contain his lustful urges to kill, as if possessed like Dr Jekyll giving way to Mr Hyde. He is a monster. But not from a horror movie. Lang based Beckert on real-life serial-killer Peter Kurten, who killed 9 adults and children in Dusseldorf in the 1920s. The fear and dread which fills the screen whenever Beckert appears is a result of the audience€™s recognition that here is a real-life monster, the like of which could be waiting outside our own child€™s school. With the city watching, the net closes around Beckert and the hunter becomes the hunted. It€™s here where Lang shifts the audience€™s empathy towards the killer. What is fascinating about M is that given the subject matter and the abhorrent nature of Beckert€™s crimes, we strangely begin to feel a warped sense of sympathy for him. In a compelling finale, Beckert is taken to a secret location where is forced to face a kangaroo court made up of the criminal underworld. Beckert€™s impassioned monologue, delivered beautifully by Lorre, gives voice to the monster within, as he describes the illness over which he has no control. We€™re forced to recognise his humanity, as he pleads for mercy, asking €œwho knows what it€™s like to be me?€ M was Lang€™s first sound film, emerging almost 4 years after the advent of the feature-length talkie with Al Jolson€™s The Jazz Singer (1927). Far from exhibiting a primitive use of sound, as one may expect, Lang employed an innovative use of audio techniques that were surprisingly sophisticated for the time, such as overlapping dialogue allowing the carrying over of speech over scenes to function like a voice over. In one brilliant scene, the chief of police discusses the case with a politician over the telephone. As the conversation progresses, we see documentary-style footage of the police investigation in action, backing up the information the chief is relaying over the telephone. In another montage Lang overlaps dialogue across several scenes, as various innocent men are accused of being the murderer. Each scene ends with a line of dialogue that acts as a cue for the beginning of the next scene €“ as if the entire montage is one continuous sequence. Lang realised that this new tool in the filmmakers€™ arsenal could be used to improve the narrative continuity and dramatic effect of his film. What now seems like basic film technique was revolutionary in 1931 and set the path for the way sound would be used for decades to come. Overlapping dialogue was a technique that many film critics and historians attributed to Orson Welles€™ Citizen Kane (1941), but it€™s in evidence in M some ten years earlier. In contrast there are other scenes that play without sound, almost as if Lang was lazily reverting to silent film technique. However, Lang used sound sparingly, combining it with moments of silence to ensure that when sounds did arrive, they were given more dramatic emphasis. When the police raid the criminal quarter of Berlin to round up the city€™s lowlifes, their arrival is played out in silence. Lang left out the ambient street sounds, in order to emphasise the shrill sound of the police whistles, which mark the beginning of the raid and triggers panic amongst the criminals. M also marks one of the earliest uses of a leitmotif in cinema. In later years musical signatures linked to characters would normally take the form of a theme on the musical score, but here Lang has Beckert whistle the theme to Peer Gynt, marking his arrival on screen and his intention to kill again. Think of John Williams€™ signature theme for the arrival of the shark in Jaws, and here Lorre€™s whistling serves the same purpose. There€™s also a visual expertise on display that you would expect from one of the leading directors of the silent era and German Expressionism. High contrast lighting, skewed angles and a gritty urban backdrop give the film an uneasy sense of foreboding that acted as a precursor to the American crime genre and Film Noirs of the 1940s and 50s. Beyond the impressive techniques, what is most striking about M is the continued relevance of the subjects and themes, almost 80 years after the film€™s original release. In the film€™s finale, the head of the underworld hypothesises about a scenario in which the killer could plead insanity and be back on the streets to kill again. It€™s a damning indictment of the 1930s German legal system, which could have been written about any country, in any era, so universal and timeless are the issues and concerns raised in the film. The death penalty, vigilantism and the rights of the criminal are all moral debates which Lang leaves the audience pondering long after the final credits roll. Blu-ray: M has recently been restored and released in the UK as part of Eureka€™s Master of Cinema series. The disc features an excellent high-definition transfer in the original 1.19:1 aspect ratio, along with a commentary featuring film restoration expert Martin Koerber. The restored version of the film was compiled mainly from the original camera negative, hence the excellent picture quality. There are several scenes that were missing from the original which were restored from other lower quality sources, but these are infrequent and in no way detract from the overall transfer quality. The disc also features an English language version of the film, which was filmed simultaneously for international audiences, and features Peter Lorre€™s first performance in English. This version is shorter and not restored, and despite being a curiousity, should not be regarded as an alternative to the original. The English actors seem terribly stilted in comparison to their German counterparts, and Lorre€™s final monologue is far more effective and compelling in his mother tongue. The first commentary features a couple of German film scholars, who at times risk disappearing up their own arses with their pretentious theorising. At one point as the police look through Beckert€™s waste basket in search of clues, we are informed that €œthis film really has an obsessive preoccupation with refuse€. Er € if you say so. The second commentary features excerpts from a Peter Bogdanovich interview with Fritz Lang, which was never intended to be broadcast. The audio quality is very poor, and it€™s a shame that Eureka didn€™t include a transcript in the form of subtitles, as it€™s almost impossible to understand what Lang is saying at times. A 1968 documentary and 48-page booklet make up the package. Overall it€™s a solid Blu-ray release, worth owning for the film alone and the quality of the restoration and transfer, if not for the extras.

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