For all practical purposes a cycle of German films dealing with supernatural themes, beginning with Der Student Von Prag in 1914, ended with Fahrmann Maria (Ferryboat Maria) in 1936. Reaching into folk legends, superstitions, and popular beliefs German filmmakers were fascinated by tales of alchemy, deals with the devil, battles with mythical beings, and, especially, appearances of the personification of Death.
In 1921 Fritz Lang’s film Der Mude Tod (Destiny) featured a character with ashen features dressed in a dark robe: Death itself. The figure of the stranger who appears out of the fog shrouded shadows and is ferried across the river late at night in Fahrmann Maria is a direct descendant of Lang’s Death character.
An occasional twist to these old tales was the concept of Death being defeated (usually through the power of love) and one’s ultimate fate being postponed. Historically, variations on this element carried over a few decades later into Cocteau’s Orpheus and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
Frank Wisbar (born Franz Wysbar) was born in Tilsit in 1899. He acquired technical training from Carl Boese and Carl Froelich, and in 1932 directed his first film, Im Banne des Eulenspiegels, (Spell of the Looking Glass). Before directing what is considered his masterpiece, Fharmann Maria, his most noted film was Anna and Elisabeth (1934). The year of this film’s release was the peak year in the history of the German sound film up to the end of World War II, and totaled 147 releases. By this time the National Socialists were in power with Joseph Goebbels appointed as Minister For Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and filmmakers were suddenly losing their artistic freedoms.
The loss in entertainment value was noted in a New York Times review of the cinema in Berlin (July 2, 1933, IX, 2:2). The reviewer praises Anna and Elisabeth, making special note that it was made before NS control. The reviewer states "...And maybe by next season the cultural politicians (not mentioning Goebbels by name) of the Third Reich will have come to the realization that the public pays money to the box office to be entertained, not to have party publicity crammed down it’s throat."
By the second most proficient year, 1936, with 143 releases, the quality of the German cinema predictably had fallen. Only two features of this batch approached any merit: Die Klugen Fraue, directed by Arthur Maria Rabenalt, and Fahrmann Maria. By 1945 the only other true fantasy film to be produced was Munchausen (1943). This film was presented as a lighthearted, overproduced, purely escapist color extravaganza. No other films of this era explored the darker side of undying love, sacrifice, and death defeated.
Wisbar and several of his associates, described as a group of first-rate Teuton film players, formed a cooperative. It functioned under the banner Pallas-Film GambH. Having interest in folk legend and the supernatural, Wisbar initially planned to make a film titled Der Werewolf, but was halted during production. Had this film completed it would have been one of sound film’s earliest forays into the world of cinematic lycanthropy, predating Universal’s The Werewolf of London (1935). The locale that was to be used, a favorite setting of the director’s, was Luneberger Heath near Hamburg. This heath was appropriately eerie with its watery bogs and foreboding looking poplar trees. Although an ideal setting for a werewolf story, the location would be subsequently used as a setting for a confrontation and resultant struggle with the personification of Death. Traveling far from the studio, Wisbar moved cast and crew here to lens Fahrmann Maria.
In a small German village surrounded by marshes the only link with the outside world is a manually operated ferryboat. One night the ferryboat operator, an elderly man (Karl Plaaten), is aroused from his sleep to ferry a passenger. The passenger is a mysterious stranger dressed in black (Peter Voss) with a pale face and white hair--Death himself. The stranger steps on to the ferry and halfway across the water the ferryboat operator succumbs to death. The next day the job is posted in the village but no one wants to take it. A young homeless girl, Maria (Sybille Schmitz), arrives in the village, applies for the position and is hired. She moves in to the ferryboat operator’s shack.
Soon after beginning her job, Maria (Sybille Schmitz, see photograph above) hears cries for help in the marshes. She finds a young man (Aribert Mog) hiding from mysterious strangers dressed in black, riding white horses. After taking him into her shack she refuses to answer their ringing to be ferried over. Finally the strangers give up and leave. She nurses the young man back to health, during which time, in a semi-delirium, he tells of how he must return to his homeland and fight the enemy (which is not named) threatening it. In time he regains his strength and promises to return to her. Death appears on the opposite shore but Maria again refuses to ferry him over.
During the village festival Death appears among the crowds. Maria recognizes him and at first takes refuge in a church. She then manages to steer Death away from the young man by leading him into the marshes, where he loses his footing and sinks into the swamp while Maria manages to cross to dry land. She has offered herself in place of her beloved and in turn conquered Death. She returns to the young man who, fully recovered, prepares to leave. She leaves with him declaring that his homeland now belongs to the both of them.
Frank Wisbar co-wrote the script of Fahrmann Maria with Hans Jurgen Nierentz. It is essentially a silent drama with small patches of dialogue here and there (curiously, none of it absolutely essential to the plot), accompanied by a haunting musical score by Herbert Windt.
One unique use of dialogue occurs outside the village hall where Maria goes to inquire about the ferryboat pilot job. She and the village official go inside while the camera remains outside, picking up the entire conversation. Since production was done entirely on location with interiors done in local buildings, for some reason the interior of the village hall (or any other building that may have served as a replacement) may have been unsuitable for filming.
The strength of Fahrmann Maria lies in its imagery: the appearance of Death waiting on the shore; dark, cloaked figures riding white horses; fog shrouded marshes; and the festival in the village. The cinematography was done by Franz Weihmayr who often used diffusion filters which added greatly to the dour atmosphere; both day and night scenes are engulfed in a gloomy haze.
Sybille Schmitz’ performance as Fahrmann Maria is a high point of the film. Her appearances in this film, and earlier in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, have assured her a pseudo-cult status among classic fantasy film aficionados. Yet her presence in the story stirred controversy. A Dr. Lemme wrote in the periodical, Volk and Rasse (People and Race), that the film did not meet "the standards of racial hygiene." He found the character of Maria objectionable because she was played by a brunette and dressed in "rags and tatters."
The structure of the story was also attacked. Aribert Mog met the physical requirements of the Aryan Germanic type but it was felt he would not have accepted Maria and her comment that, “I, too, now have a homeland because I love you.” This statement, wrote Lemme, erroneously implies that through love alone, and not race, could nationality be acquired.
Reportedly, Goebbels hated the film, possibly because of a vagueness in the storyline. Some of the Censorship Board members went so far as to imply that it was a "parable of the defeat of NS ideology." This alone would have been enough to ban the film, but Goebbels didn’t, and not wanting to stir up his ‘intellectual’ advisors he even awarded it with a ‘culturally valuable’ subsidy.
Historian Jerzy Toeplits recently wrote in Geschichte des Films:
It is astonishing that this film with it’s blending of dream and reality and with it’s unknown persecutors, arriving by night in black uniforms, should have been spared the censorship and the thunderous attack of the official press. Perhaps co-author of the script, Hans Jurgen Nierentz, the future Reichfilmdramaturg and a persona grata in the National Socialist Party, provided a shield.
Other reviewers commented favorably on the film. The widely read Berliner Volks Zeitung mentioned how cinematographer Franz Weihmayr had "...created wonderful chiaroscuro pictures pregnant with atmosphere. The film is a triumph of photography which is so artistic and so powerful that the actors appear like phantoms." The reviewer also praised Wisbar’s limited usage of sound, commenting on, "...When Maria storms into the tower and pulls the bell-chord in despair, the clapper resounds at first, but soon the bell becomes silent," an exceptionally effective sequence in an early German sound film. But soon afterwards the Stranger says, logically, but superfluously, “Tonight no bells are ringing in the village.” The review concluded stating Wisbar had truly created "a work of artistic distinction."
Another publication, Film Kurier, liked it but was a bit less enthusiastic, calling it "...a pioneering work [which will] be of particular interest to those Berliners who are interested in film. It is a courageous effort which certainly merits this interest." Considered by historians to be a masterpiece, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City obtained a print for its archives before the outbreak of World War II, making it available for subsequent evaluation.
Within the next few years Wisbar made three more films, the last being released in 1937. One film, Die Unbekannte (The Unknown) reunited Sybille Schmitz and Aribert Mog. Joined in the cast with French actor Jean Gallard the resultant work was less than successful. Where all elements were just right with Fahrmann Maria, everything was wrong with the later work. The director was more at home in the ethereal Northern mystical swamps than in the drawing rooms of Paris.
In this era of nationalist epics like The Triumph of the Will, Victory in the West, and later Kolberg, a filmmaker such as he found it more and more difficult to function. While directors like Leni Riefenstahl and Veit Harlan were thriving under the auspices of the Third Reich, legions of other German talent were emigrating. Among these directors were Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, Karl Freund, William Dieterle, E A Dupont, Robert Weine, G W Pabst and Max Ophuls. Among the performers to leave were Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Kortner and Brigitte Helm.
Sybille Schmitz, a disciple of Max Reinhardt, continued working in German films. Often she found herself in roles beneath her talents and had bouts with depression. In 1955, at age 44, she ended her own life in Munich. By 1939 Wisbar had quietly emigrated to the United States. Not much is known about his early years in the US other than he did a lot of lecturing with an anti-Nazi stance. In 1942 he joined Minoco Films in New York City. His first association with Hollywood production, albeit low budget grade-B production, was a screenplay for Monogram Pictures titled Woman in Bondage. By 1945, still working in low budget production, Wisbar was given the opportunity to direct. This opportunity came from one of the lesser production units in Hollywood, Producers Releasing Corporation, or simply PRC. Other fellow European émigrés working at PRC included Douglas Sirk and Edgar Ulmer. Naturally he chose to remake what he considered to be his best property. The resultant film is generally considered to be the best film to come out of PRC’s schlock factory.
Historically, what has proven to be among the best of the worst may indeed be a dubious distinction, but is fondly remembered when put in its proper perspective. It doesn’t (read couldn’t) contain the lyricism and poetic imagery of Fahrmann Maria, but manages to rise above the limited budget to be entertaining. Although shot on a tiny sound stage everything appears to be larger and has a Germanic feel to it.
Reportedly, Wisbar worked with a shooting schedule of one week and a minuscule budget of around $20,000. Even in 1946 this was shoestring filmmaking at its lowest. Predictably a few plot situations and characterizations had to be altered. The locale was changed from a European ‘land of phantoms’ small village seething with superstitions and myths to an obscure backwater town buried in the deep American south. The personification of Death became the lurking ghost of a wrongly executed man named Douglas (Charles Middleton). The homeless wandering Maria (Rosemary La Planche, Miss America of 1941) became the granddaughter of the late ferryboat operator who takes over his job. The haunted soldier who escaped death became a young man (Blake Edwards) returning from the city. Lines of dialogue, like "Run ‘til your heart bursts," were added.
A major alteration occurs in the climax. In FahrmannMaria, Maria leads Death into the swamps where he sinks below it’s depths, being ‘consumed’ by them. In Strangler of the Swamp Maria offers herself to the vengeful spirit who is satisfied by the gesture alone. He is, in a broad sense, consumed by this act of love. Mike Weldon in The Psychotronic Video Guide recommends Strangler of the Swamp as "...a must for anybody interested in good early horror."
The earlier film’s running time is 75 minutes, is nicely paced, and has an extraneous character in the form of a fiddle player (Carl de Vogt). The later Hollywood product’s running time is a taut 60 minutes, is briskly paced, and eliminates the character (and added expense) of the fiddle player. While the earlier film’s Death character appears as a quiet but omnipresent entity, Robert Middleton’s vengeful ghost tends to talk a bit too much. He can be reasoned with, hence softening any frightful elements he is supposed to possess. Upon completion of the principle photography of Strangler of the Swamp, PRC was not sure how to finalize and handle distribution. Alexander Steinkert was assigned to compose the musical score. Unfortunately, the music tends to counter the effect of the directorial impact of some of the scenes and in general adds nothing to the film.
Rosemary LePlanche worked again with Wisbar in Devil Bat's Daughter in the title role. Robert Middleton, already an established character actor, continued to act until his death in 1949. His most memorable character will remain Ming the Merciless of the Flash Gordon serials. Blake Edwards went on to be an (overrated) director of big budget comedies like Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Pink Panther films, The Great Race (1965) and 10 (1979). Frank Wisbar continued in low budget production making over 300 films and shows for television, functioning as a screenwriter, director and producer. He returned to Germany in 1956 and continued to make films. His last film Marcia o Crepa (German title, Marschier Und Krepier) (1963) was made in Italy. He died in Mainz in 1967.
Comparison of an original work and its remake can be interesting, particularly if both works were guided by the same director’s hand. One can watch both of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much of 1934 and 1956 as well as Capra’s Lady for a Day (1933) and Pocket Full of Miracles (1961), and effectively evaluate both directors' reasons for remaking earlier works. The remakes represent upgrades in overall production quality as well as improvements in storyline and directorial technique. Both originals and remakes remain characteristic of the era in which they were released.
Strangler of the Swamp, in all fairness, should not be described as a step down in quality or otherwise from Fahrmann Maria, although both films are definitely not, in any sort, of similar class. True, PRC did give Wisbar a free hand in it’s production, as long as what ultimately resulted was one of their schlocky thrillers. Fellow auteur E.A. Dupont was responsible early in his career for classics like The Ancient Law (1923), Variety (1925) and Atlantic (1931). By the end of his career in Hollywood he found himself directing such non-classics like Problem Girls and The Neanderthal Man (both 1953). With Wisbar it’s difficult to effectively compare the artist’s classic works like Anna and Elizabeth and Ball in Metropol with later schlock titles like Devil Bat's Daughter and Secrets of a Sorority Girl (both 1946). Directors like Fritz Lang and Edgar Ulmer could boast classics at all stages of their careers. Frank Wisbar was a man who was given a second chance at a level beneath him. He did the best he could with what he was required to work with and managed better than average results.
From Caligari to Hitler by Siegfried Kracauer, Princeton University Press, 1947
Film in the Third Reich by David Stewart Hull, University of California Press, 1969
The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz, Thomas Y Crowell, Publishers, 1979
The Filmgoers Companion, 7th Edition by Leslie Halliwell, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980
Great German Films by Frederick W Ott, Citadel Press, 1986
Histoire Du Cinema Nazi (in French) by Francis Courtade & Pierre Cadars, Eric Losfeld, pub, 1972
Producer's Releasing Corporation, Wheeler Dixon, ed, McFarland & Co, 1986
Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film by Michael Weldon, Ballantine Books, 1983
The Psychotronic Video Guide by Michael Weldon, St Martin’s, 1996
Screen Series - Germany by Felix Bucher, A Zwemmer Limited, 1970
The New York Times
July 2, 1933, IX, 2:2, review of ANNA UND ELISABETH when first released in Berlin
June 13, 1936, 13:1, review of ANNA UND ELISABETH, American release
March 5, 1938, 11:3, review of BALL IM METROPOL, American release
December 24, 1938, 12:3, review of FAHRMANN MARIA, American release
The Internet Movie Database
The New School Film Series 55, Program #11, A Forgotten Director: Frank Wisbar, film screening notes by William K Everson of FAHRMANN MARIA and STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP