Directed by Frank Wysbar (1936)
Sybille Schmitz (Maria)
Aribert Mog (Man from the far shore)
Carl de Vogt (Geiger the fiddler)
Peter Voss (Death)
Karl Platen (Old Ferryman)
Moody and atmospheric and shot in the style of early silent films with very little dialogue and ponderous pacing, this mystical account of love and death was very popular when it was released. The film opens with Geiger singing and playing his violin as he is being ferried across the river. Geiger is like the god Pan with a violin instead of pipes. It is the old ferryman's last day and Geiger gives him a coin which disappears into thin air. The ferryman is weary and goes home. Later that night the ferryman is called to the far shore and picks up a menacing figure dressed in black who is Death. As the ferryman strains to pull the ferry he collapses and dies, and Death takes the ferry back to the mainland.
The next morning Geiger tells the innkeeper that the ferryman is dead. We see Maria dressed in rags waking up in a barn. She walks into town carrying a small bundle and pauses to listen to children singing. She sees a policeman and shrinks back in fear. Seeing this, the innkeeper asks her what she is doing there. She says she is looking for a job, and he laughs and says there aren't any, and he guesses that she has no papers. He remembers that the ferryman has died and offers her the job which she happily accepts. She walks across the treacherous marshes to the dilapidated cabin next to the ferry which will be her new home.
That evening she gets called to the far shore. A wounded man lies on the ground and she helps him aboard. He screams for her to hurry, and as she pulls the ferry away, black-clad men on white horses gallop up to the landing with Death in the forefront. Maria takes the wounded man back to her cabin, and refuses to go back for the riders as she is afraid of them. Later she picks herbs in the moonlight and meets Geiger who sings to her of love sickness. She goes to the cabin and makes a poultice of the herbs for the wounded man.
The next morning the man is better. They talk and he asks her where her "heimat" (homeland) is. She says she hasn't any. He says his is over yonder and he points to the far horizon. She says it must be beautiful and he agrees. He says he is trying to get back to it. They walk and he slips into the quicksand. She helps him out and he is surprised at the depth of her feelings for him. She goes back to the cabin and changes from her rags into a fancy dress she has had in the bundle she has been carrying.
That night the town gets ready for a festival. The man asks Maria if she will look for his heimat with him. She tells him that she loves him. Later that evening the man becomes delirious and thinks the black riders are after him. Maria is summoned to the far shore, and Death rides the ferry back to the island with her. She asks him why he is coming to the island, and he holds up one of the wounded man's spurs and says he is looking for him. Maria says he is not there. Death heads towards her cabin, and Maria tells him the wounded man is at the festival.
Maria and Death go to the festival and everyone recoils from Death. Maria insists on dancing with Death and Geiger plays wild discordant music. A man tries to cut in on them, and Maria escapes and runs to the church and prays for God to spare the wounded man. Death follows her inside and she runs into the bell tower to ring for help. Death silences the bell with a glare and tells her that no bells will ring that night. A defeated Maria leads Death across the marshes to her cabin. Death loses his footing and disappears into the quicksand.
The next morning the wounded man and Maria walk to the ferry. Geiger comes running after them and jumps into the ferry just as it leaves the shore. When they reach the other side, Geiger leaps off and waves them a last goodbye. Maria and the wounded man face the land in the distance and Maria says "heimat". They walk happily arm in arm toward the horizon.
While this film has a large cult following it certainly has had its share of controversy. Sybille Schmitz reputedly was having an affair with Joseph Goebbels which might explain why the film's script passed the censors. The idea that a beautiful woman without papers would be able to go to the "heimat" without having first to prove "racial purity" did not sit well with the Nazi party. Of course, the insistent theme of love of "heimat" being the main cause of happiness was very much in keeping with Nazi ideology.
This is the only film that Carl made with Frank Wysbar or Sybille Schmitz. Wysbar moved to Hollywood and changed his name to Wisbar and remade the film as "Strangler in the Swamp". Sybille Schmitz, famous for both this role and in Carl Dreyer's Vampyr, committed suicide in 1955. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Veronika Voss was supposedly an accurate depiction of her life. In that film she was portrayed as a morphine addict who was under the control of a sadistic doctor who robbed her of all her possessions and forced her to beg for drugs.
Aribert Mog appeared again with Carl in Musketier Meier III in 1938. Herr Mog died on October 10, 1942 in the USSR fighting for his country. Peter Voss (Death) earlier appeared with Carl in Schüss an der Grenze (Shooting on the Border) in 1933. Karl Platen (the old ferryman) had appeared with Carl in Tänzerin von Sanssouci (Dancer at the Sanssouci) in 1932 and Das Lied der Schwarzen Berge (Song of the Black Mountains) in 1933.
This film has been shown on the Arte Channel in Germany.