The implacable force hovering over Fritz Lang's deterministic traps, Death in this early spiritual masterpiece is a melancholy executioner, as much of a cosmically entrapped pawn as his victims. The "town lost in memory" is a storybook burg, at its crossroads materializes the visitor (Bernhard Goetzke), somber, cloaked, "strangely familiar." At the Golden Unicorn Inn he casts a ghastly shadow, newlyweds share a table with him and when the maiden (Lil Dagover) next sees her fiancé (Walter Janssen) he's part of a spectral procession vanishing behind an endless wall. The intermittence of a gesture (the bereft heroine brings a vial of poison to her lips) propels the journey into the beyond, the Song of Solomon has the magic words: "For love is as strong as death." A bold vertical is something of value, says Dreyer, Lang has the obelisk-shaped portal and a chamber with tall flickering candles representing human lives. (Death levitates one of the flames, which dissolves into a newborn child and then into nothing as somewhere a mother wails.) Three embedded fables, three chances to save one's beloved, three reincarnations of doom. One Thousand and One Nights for the Caliphate, a sumptuous moving manuscript with a corpse in the garden. Venice during the Renaissance is a carnival of masks and poisoned daggers, groundwork for Murnau's Faust. A burlesque of expressionism has the tetchy wizard in Imperial China morphing into the prickly diagonal of a cactus, it ends with skewered tiger and weeping statue. The chill of fate continuously unsettles the exoticism of each tale, the folly of trying to outpace the Reaper builds to an epiphany in the midst of a conflagration. Dürer redivivus, with Fra Angelico icons throughout (Dagover with hands folded in prayer in iris-encircled close-up), Les Visiteurs du Soir and The Seventh Seal and countless others carry its mark. The pastoral ascension beautifully reverses Poe's Sphinx going down "the naked face of the hill," Heaven is lovers reunited at last. With Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Max Adalbert, and Paul Biensfeldt. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce