If Fritz Lang were only known for his two most popular films, he would still rank among the most influential directors in cinema history. The first film is Metropolis, the godfather of movie science fiction; the second is M, available from the Criterion Collection and rightly considered one of the greatest films ever made.
The plot of M is so simple that Lang lived in fear that someone would beat him to it: the criminal denizens of Berlin rally together to catch a murderer of children, if only to quiet the rabid police force and make life easier for themselves. Around this basic premise, Lang weaves a gorgeous tapestry of human drama and social commentary, expertly balancing elements of suspense, humor, and tragedy.
At the center of all of this is Peter Lorre’s star-making performance as Hans Beckert, the murderer who seems just as frightened and confused by himself as does the rest of the city. Neither protagonist nor true antagonist, Hans is the only character that the film fully identifies, resigning all others to serve simply as representatives for the various castes of the city: the police, the criminals, the homeless, the parents, etc. Hans elicits a wide range of reactions from the audience, beginning with contempt and arriving at pity by the time of the film’s tense climax. Once Hans is gone, the movie loses its energy, carrying on only long enough to deliver a heavy-handed moral that feels a little too on-the-nose. Still, this minor weak spot in no way reduces the quality of M on the whole.
While the story of M is timeless, the history of the film itself is of great significance, particularly where the Criterion DVD is concerned. The special features include a short film reimagining of M, as well as a lecture given by the film’s editor that manages to get at the heart of what made this movie so revolutionary. This emphasis on technical influence extends to a documentary feature that chronicles the movie’s life, from its original film print to its modern digital format. Other features, particularly the three editorials from 1931, analyze M’s impact on a social level, striking a crucial balance that is necessary for appreciating the film’s emotional power as well as its cinematic brilliance.
M is unrated, though parental guidance is advised given the film’s adult themes and subject matter. It is currently available for $20 in stores and online at Barnes and Noble.