Death is the implacable entity at the center of Fritz Lang's deterministic traps, yet here the Grim Reaper is a melancholy executioner, as much of an entrapped player in the cosmic design as his victims. (The Weary Death is the original German title.) Unsmiling Death (Bernhard Goetzke) materializes by the side of the road and hops a stagecoach into the nearby hamlet, "some time, some place." Sweethearts Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen share a drink at the tavern with the dour stranger, a skeleton shadow falls across the table as a glass of beer melts into an hourglass; when Dagover next spots her beloved, he's a phantom marching with the other souls, disappearing behind an endless wall. The bereft frau is desperate to join her lover, a gulp of apothecary poison does the trick -- an overlap-dissolve transports her into Death's austere-Gothic realm, a climb up the stairway leads her to the caped, doleful figure, to whom she begs for the return of her beau's life in a stupefying, iris-encircled close-up, a Dreyer image before Dreyer. Moved, Death shows her the chamber where lives are long, skinny candles that putter out once God so decides: a flame is levitated, which dissolves into a newborn baby, then into nothing, while a cut locates a mother sobbing over the lifeless child. The job is a burden, Death yearns to be conquered, so the maiden gets three chances to reclaim her man by saving a life from being snuffed out in other parts of the world -- Orpheus, with detours for Scheherazade, Shakespeare, and Taiping Guangji. Arabian nights, Renaissance Venice, and folkloric China provide Dagover with a trio of incarnations and the director with a thousand opportunities to explore cinema's possibilities, while opening the eyes of Buñuel, Hitchcock, Bergman, Argento, et al. A tear streaks down the face of a statue and the heroine is back in the present, with the clock ticking for her to find one life for Death; even the wretched wish to hang on to theirs, however, so she finds transcendence in Lang's purifying blaze and a final sublime stroll, forward and heavenwards. Written by Lang and Thea von Harbou. With Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Max Adalbert, and Hans Sternberg. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce