A simple, haunting musical phrase whistled offscreen tells us that a young girl will be killed. “Who Is the Murderer?” pleads a nearby placard as serial killer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) closes in on little Elsie Beckmann . . . In his harrowing masterwork M, Fritz Lang merges trenchant social commentary with chilling suspense, creating a panorama of private madness and public hysteria that to this day remains the blueprint for the psychological thriller.
Fritz Lang's M receives a North American Blu-ray release from Criterion, who presents the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.19:1 on this dual-layer disc. The transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz.
Though I have seen the 2004 DVD edition, which presented a sharp digital transfer, I don't own it and don't have it for a direct comparison so I am unable to comment on how this edition improves over it specifically. In comparison to the original 1998 DVD, a port of the laserdisc, this new Blu-ray transfer, unsurprisingly, offers improvements in just about every area, as I recall the 2004 DVD also doing.
The image is far cleaner than that rather poor DVD (which I admittedly still loved at the time) presenting a far more film-like image. Grain is clearly visible, looking fairly natural but I must admit there were a few minor instances where it looked more like pixilation or noise than film grain. Still, the image presents excellent definition and detail when the source allows, and in this regard the Blu-ray clearly trumps the original DVD, which looked like a mushy, murky mess. Contrast has also been adjusted, presenting deeper blacks and solid gray levels. I actually liked the way it looked though it did open up some debate in our forum.
There's still quite a bit of noticeable damage, though this is still clearly the best I've seen the film in this respect. There are marks and scratches dancing around on the sides on occasions, there's a minor burn noticeable in the top right of the frame during the police investigation and raid sequences, and vertical scratches appear constantly. But it is still all very minor and rarely calls attention to itself. Some sequences can look a little fuzzy or out of focus, but this also has to do with the materials, in the source, and nothing can really be done in this area to improve upon it.
But forgetting the source, which was expected (and in all honesty is not being weighed very heavily in the final grade) the transfer looks quite good, the best I've seen the film on home video. Sometimes the grain doesn't look completely natural in my eyes, but the picture is still wonderfully sharp and pleasing as a whole.
The film's soundtrack has always presented problems on its various home video editions and while this lossless German PCM track still offers an improvement I can't say it's much as all of the track's original problems remain thanks to the source materials. Some noise has been reduced but it can still sound harsh as a whole, even a bit tinny and hollow. This is probably about as good as it gets.
The original DVD came with nothing in the way of supplements but Criterion's 2-disc re-release came loaded with some good ones. I again don't have that disc for a direct comparison though recall that everything from that disc has made it over here, along with an additional feature exclusive to this release. All video supplements, other than the picture galleries, are presented in 1080i/60hz. The galleries are presented in 1080p.
First is an audio commentary by German film scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler. Unfortunately it's a rather dry scholarly track with a surprising amount of dead space. There are some intriguing comments about the editing and transitions, as well as the framing, composition, camera position, and symbolism found throughout. Lang's use of sound is brought up but isn't as heavily covered in the track as I would have thought, but they do offer some historical context that I found interesting. Overall it's possibly worth sampling but that's about it.
The remaining supplements are then found under 'Supplements' in the pop-out menu.
First to be found here is one of my favourites on the disc, a Conversation with Fritz Lang, conducted and directed by William Friedkin in 1975 over a period of two days. Running a little over 50-minutes it focuses on Lang's early life and career from 1917 to 1933, which covers how he first got into filmmaking to making The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, with the director sharing some great stories, particularly one about a meeting with Dr. Goebbels that lead to him fleeing Germany that in and of itself is full of tension (though the notes for the feature do point out that Lang wasn't always truthful during interviews, and another interview on this disc calls into question how Lang actually fled German.) With his eye-patch, his natural way of storytelling, and a slight annoyance to some of Friedkin's questions, Lang carries this interview effortlessly and makes a most fascinating subject. Disappointingly this is the shorter, edited version of the interview; apparently a longer, 140-minute version exists. Also, the audio is a little rough and a subtitle option would have been appreciated. Still, despite my mild criticisms on the presentation I'm thrilled with its inclusion.
Next, and not available on the DVD edition from Criterion, is the English Version of M, which had been long lost only to be discovered in the BFI archives in 2005, after Criterion's DVD re-issue. It runs 93-minutes and is comprised of reshoots with English actors replacing certain roles, or Lorre doing his scenes in English, mixed in with obvious English dubs. There's some interesting and bizarre edits, specifically when we go from German text to English, which in turn makes Lorre's introduction by shadow rather off. Though it's shorter I wasn't able to pinpoint all of the differences, though some of the reshot sequences do feel shorter, like the Kangaroo Court at the end. It's interesting to watch but it does feel odd and Lorre's performance in the English sequences isn't as good, nowhere near as intense. Plus the ending has been altered similar to the French version. More of a curiosity than anything else. (It should also be mentioned that no restoration has been done at all and the source looks to be in rather rough condition.)
A Physical History of M is a 25-minute visual essay about M and its various versions and history. The aspect ratio is discussed and sequences are shown from the French version (at the time the feature was made the English version had yet to be discovered.) It then gets into detail about its banning and then how the Nazi's were able to use the film in one of their anti-Semitic propaganda films, Criterion including a large nasty portion of that film to give context. It also brings up the source used for the original Criterion DVD and laserdisc, and the discovery of the new materials used for the 2-disc re-release and then this Blu-ray. Though I'm sure there's more material to be covered it's an excellent primer and worth watching.
Following this is Claude Chabrol's M le maudit, an 11-minute short film made for a French television program in 1982 where director's had to create short versions of their favourite films. It recreates key sequences from the film and is rather 'cute' but I was a little unsure as to why this was included until I watched the interview with the director that accompanies the film. In the interview Chabrol talks about the painstaking task he went through to recreate certain shots, calling on him to study every detail of a shot, including the speed of a pan or a gesture by the actor. Through this interview, which is only 7-minutes, he of course really gets into Lang's techniques and breaks down a couple of shots he recreated. Going back to Chabrol's film and then looking at the actual sequences in Lang's M you then really see how these little touches really impact a scene. Though I questioned it at first it turns out to be a really informative feature, even better than what was covered in the commentary track.
Harold Nebenzal, son of M producer Seymour Nebenzal, recorded a 14-minute interview for the 2-disc DVD in 2004 and here it is again. It's a rather strong interview, with Nebenzal recalling a visit to the set of the film, his father's production company and the films it produced, and his father's move to the States, along with the eventual American remake of M which hurt his career severely. He also offers an alternate story to Lang's leaving Germany and 'never returning.' It was nice to get this interview because I was unfamiliar with what happened with Nebenzal later in his career, plus I only had a slight bit of knowledge about the remake.
The next supplement is an audio one, presenting editor Paul Falkenberg's Classroom Tapes recorded from classes at the New School in New York in 1975 and 1976. Unfortunately there are only 36-minutes worth of material here, but thankfully it's all rather good. Its presentation is also fairly clever, playing the audio over sequences from the film Falkenberg is referring to. The film also stops when he calls for whoever is projecting to stop the film, and it even rewinds when he calls for them to rewind, working to recreate the experience of actually being there. In the interview Falkenberg talks about the editing process of the film and Lang's involvement. He breaks down scenes and the framing, and also comments on the use of lighting and space. He has some anecdotes, which includes Lorre's inability to whistle, and even points out some of the actors and mentions their career briefly, and even mentions the possible fate of one under Nazi rule. Though the audio can be a tad hard to hear at times, it's a great feature and I rather liked Criterion's presentation.
The disc then concludes with a rather large Stills Gallery, which has been divided into five sections: The Crime, The Search, The Capture, The Trial, and Posters and Documents. You can navigate directly to them or start from the beginning and work your way to the end. The first four sections are made up of production photos, behind-the-scenes shots, sketches and comparisons between what was envisioned and the final shot, all dedicated to their respective sections of the film. The last section presents a variety of posters from around the world. Notes are scattered about giving descriptions.
The fairly thick booklet that comes with the release offers a number of intriguing articles. First is a reprint of the essay by Stanley Kauffmann found in the original DVD release, though it has been edited slightly, and oddly omits the last paragraph where he mentions how Lorre wasn't the one to be whistling in the film. The next short piece is a reprint of a missing scene that's in the script sent to the censors but doesn't look to have been filmed. Though I couldn't really make heads or tails of it the notes suggest it's about an unstable person calling in to the police to claim responsibility for the murders. The next few articles deal with the reception and controversy of the film at the time, including a reprint of an article by Lang defending the film, another by Gabrielle Tergit lambasting its morals, and then a letter by a supposed underworld figure making mention of the criminal moral code. The booklet then concludes with a reprinted interview with Lang on M from 1963. In all an excellent booklet filled with some great material.
And that concludes the release. The commentary was not something I was fond of but the rest of the material is great, the inclusion of the English version being a nice touch, satisfying my curiosity. If I felt one thing was missing it was maybe more information on the remake, but I'm fine without it. In all it's very satisfying and another strong selection of supplements from Criterion.
The supplements are excellent, the addition of the English version really adding some value to this one even if I found it to be more of a curiosity than much else. Still the transfer, despite some minor issues, presents the best looking version of the film I've seen yet (noting I have not yet seen the Masters of Cinema's region B Blu-ray release). It comes with a very high recommendation.