In Jean-Luc Godard's "Contempt," when the filmmaker Fritz Lang (playing himself) meets Brigitte Bardot's character, she sings the praises of his 1952 Western, "Rancho Notorious." Lang is appreciative, but he begs to differ. "I prefer 'M,' " he says.
Lang regarded "M," which opened in 1931, just two years before he fled Nazi Germany for a long if less storied Hollywood career, as his greatest achievement. Judging by its regular placement on all-time-best lists, many critics concur.
"M," which systematically tracks the separate quests of the police and the underworld to catch a child killer who's terrorizing Weimar-era Berlin, was among the first titles released in the late '90s by the Criterion Collection, which issued an upgraded version with a digitally restored transfer in a fine two-disc set in 2004; this week Critierion is making the film available on high-definition Blu-ray.
"M" dates from a unique period of transition, the in-between years in the late '20s and early '30s, when cinema was evolving from a silent to a sound medium. Unlike many silent-era masters who made the switch, Lang didn't treat the nascent technology as a gimmick or a new toy; he understood right away that effective sound design often entails an expressive use of silence. An eerie quiet blankets long stretches of "M." The soundtrack, instead of simply recording the roar and chatter of the real world (as was the case with many early talkies), is a spare and stylized aural collage, picking out isolated noises and emphasizing off-screen sound.
Literally ripped from the headlines, the plot draws on the case of a notorious '20s serial killer whom the German tabloids dubbed the Dusseldorf Vampire. Lang doesn't recoil from the explicit subject matter, but at the same time he doesn't show what he can chillingly suggest. The early sequence of a young victim's demise is a justly legendary demonstration of the power of suggestion. As a mother's panicked cries are heard, an indelible series of shots — a place setting, an empty stairwell, a dank basement, a ball rolling out from a bush, a balloon tangled in telephone wires — establishes that the unthinkable has indeed happened.
Sound is central to the identity of the pudgy, baby-faced killer (played by Peter Lorre), who's heard before he's seen — he has a habit of whistling a haunting refrain from Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" (Lorre couldn't whistle, so it's Lang we're hearing). A young theater actor who had previously worked with Bertolt Brecht, Lorre has the seemingly impossible task of making his heinous character not entirely monstrous. Against all odds, in the film's extended final sequence, before a kangaroo court assembled by a bloodthirsty mob, Lorre delivers a piercing monologue that turns the killer into a pitiable figure, unable to comprehend his own motivations.
As crucial as Lorre's performance is to "M," this is a film concerned more with a society than an individual. It's both a study of crowd psychology and a kind of city symphony, attuned to the networks and organizations that make up social worlds. Lang links the parallel efforts of the cops and criminals through shrewdly rhymed scenes (at one point cross-cutting between two smoky rooms where both groups are hashing out their plans). The overall effect, enhanced by high-angle shots that hover above the streets and storefronts, is of the city as a collective enterprise and a living organism.
With its tabloid hook and emphasis on psychopathology, "M" is often called the first serial-killer movie. But that lurid designation is somewhat misleading, given how little this sly, disturbing psychological thriller has in common with the mindless slashers that followed ( David Fincher's "Zodiac," an equally subversive and analytical film, is a rare exception). If "M" invented a genre, it also set standards for it that have proved all but impossible to follow.