If I tell you that this is one of the classics of world cinema; a film which any and every serious student of cinema history should see, you'll tune out and turn off.
But if I tell you that this is compelling, grim drama, telling the story of a gritty, powerfully-paced race to save an innocent life as thieves, beggars and police all seek to find an abominable child-murderer before he can snuff out another innocent young life, then you might be tempted to view it.
Fritz Lang's M is both those things. This pioneering talkie from 1931, from the director of Metropolis, shows its age in the wear evident in the film-stock, with its occasional film-gate shudder, flecking and scratching. But in the most important ways of all, it simply hasn't aged. This is still a trim and taut, excitingly paced tale of the hunting for and capture of the Dusselforf child murderer, known here as Hans, but in real life Peter Curtin.
And the acting from Peter Lorre as the child-murderer remains one of the most grimly compelling and believable portrayals ever committed to celluloid -- so believable that this role dogged Lorre, a very fine character-actor, for the rest of his life.
Fritz Lang in this his first talkie has really made a silent film enlivened by sound. He uses sound just to accentuate key scenes, for dialogue and key effects. The rest of the time the screen is eerily silent -- police conduct a sweep of narrow streets in total silence, without a sound of heels on cobblestones, or of cars rattling along the lanes. Then suddenly the sound will erupt of crowds spilling out of bars -- or, most ominously, of the child-murderer whistling as he hunts for his next prey - whistling Edvard Grieg's haunting melody, 'In the Hall of the Mountain King', from Peer Gynt.
In this, Lang is the complete antithesis of another, more modern master filmmaker, Robert Altman. In an interview heard in this DVD set with Peter Bogdanovitch, Lang expounds his theory that although we are at all times surrounded by sound, we have the capacity to tune out everything we do not want to hear. There may be cars, crowds, birds all around us, but if we're at a table listening to a loved-one, hers is the only voice we can hear.
Altman by contrast believes we should be exposed to everything. He layers sound upon sound, to replicate the cacaphony of real-life. In this difference of views, Lang is of course the clear winner. Altman unfortunately never realised that the subtlety of human reception of sound depends upon layers of placement-information which a soundtrack simply cannot reproduce. The art comes in what is left out as much as in what is preserved.
So this, Lang's first 'talkie', is a unique amalgam of sound and silent cinema. It is also unusual in that in this movie, there is no hero. The child-murderer is hunted down and put to trial by an alliance of criminals and beggars, partly out of revulsion, and partly because his presence is making life in the streets too hot for them. So while there is a villain, there is no single person who has hunted him down - it's a collective capture.
If the film was to be remade today, that would be the first thing changed. Nowadays we would have to have a Hollywood hero chasing down the villain. A Clint Eastwood a decade or so ago, or Brad Pitt today. Lang eschews the obvious individual personality polarity of good versus evil; instead, the strange society of outcasts is the collective 'hero'.
Just about every frame in this movie gives us arresting images which still seem freshly minted. The child-murderer strikes. The only images we see to tell of that horror are of the child's ball left rolling down a street, and her helium-balloon rising up against the power-lines. And there is an unforgettable image of the fat police-chief leading the homicide search --shot from under his desk, showing tight trousers stretched around a fat bloated groin .... an unforgettable image of excess.
Fritz Lang, while this film was shot, was hauled into Nazi headquarters and questioned about the originally planned title, 'Murderer Among Us'. "Is this a film about Hitler?", he was asked. No wonder he left Germany soon after, fleeing the Nazi tyranny as part of the Berlin exodus to Hollywood.
Our child-murderer of this piece, the goggle-eyed Hungarian-born actor Peter Lorre, fled Germany also, and his first main role after 'M' was as the villainous star of Alfred Hitchcock's British pre-war thriller, The Man Who Knew Too Much. He went on to become one of Hollywood's best-loved character-actors, in films such as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and Arsenic and Old Lace, as well as appearing as Mr Moto in a string of 'B' grade movies featuring that inscrutable Asian detective.
In an odd epitaph, Peter Lorre's co-star in M, Gustaf Grundgrens, who played the head of the criminal world which put the murderer to trial, stayed in Germany during the war and rose to the absolute peak of his profession. Propaganda chief Goebbels despised Grundgrens because of his unabashed homosexuality, but Goering - and Goering's arts-loving wife - loved him, and raised him to the role of chief arbiter of the Arts in Nazi Germany.
He was the character described in the movie Mephisto -- a man who didn't subscribe to the Nazi creed, but was willing to take all the rewards it offered. And was he punished for this after the war? Not one bit -- he just rose and rose in power and prestige, a toad who just got more and more bloated as time went by, until he finally died of an internal haemorrhage in 1963.
So here is Fritz Lang's M in the most complete and most perfectly restored edition seen since its premiere in 1931. By 1934 the movie had been banned by the Nazis, and it was not seen again on cinema screens until after the Second World War. By then it was seen in cut and mutilated editions, with entire scenes missing, and with Fritz Lang's beautiful deployment of silence destroyed by later editing-in of music and sound-effects.
This, for the first time in more than 70 years, is what Fritz Lang wanted us to see and hear. As was his classic silent movie Metropolis, this is a movie which has been brought back from the abyss of extinction. It lives again.
The DVD edition is drawn from a cinema-print restored from a variety of film elements assembled from all around the world. And considering that it the movie was withdrawn from view from 1934 until after the Second World War, it is remarkable that we have it to see in any condition at all.
The assemblage of parts, historical study and nitty-gritty restoration was done in Germany. The film transfer was done in Italy. And the painstaking restoration was done by IML Digital Media in a little city called Melbourne, Australia.
The assemblage of original parts has obviously been painstaking and done with loving professional care. The digital restoration by IML shows the same dedication, with an accompanying documentary showing quite extraordinary before-and-after video and audio examples. If there is a weak link, it seems to have been in the film-to-digital transfer.
The heavy film grain is understandable, but there is quite a deal of moire patterning and shimmering evident throughout the film. Different scenes present different quality aspects -- but overall, the film is presented in reasonably sound condition, with an image strong enough to propel its dramatic story without too much viewing agony.
Despite occasional moire patterning and shimmering, this is simply as good an edition as we're probably ever going to be offered. Throw all earlier DVD or video editions away -- they're hopelessly compromised, even so-called remasters from only two or three years ago, which worked from inferior restorations.
One of the problems with earlier restorations was the unusual screen ratio employed by Lang. This is not a fullscreen version, and attempts to present it as such have resulted in heavily-cropped and mutilated images. Instead of Academy ration of 1:1.33, this was filmed at a ratio of 1:1.19. And this new edition conforms to that ratio, giving us a fullscreen image with slight vertical bars -- a pillar-box screen shape rather than square.