Director: Frank Wisbar
By Roderick Heath
Frank Wisbar is today a fairly obscure name in the roll of classic film directors, and yet lovers of horror cinema still remember him for making two of the genre’s finer deep cuts, each film a variation of the same story, made ten years and continents apart. Born in Tilsit, Wisbar (or Wysbar as his name was originally spelt) was conscripted in World War I and stayed in the army until the mid-1920s, before he went into the film industry. He served as production manager on Leontine Sagan’s legendary lesbian-themed drama Mädchen in Uniform (1931), a success that gave him a shot at directing, debuting with the adventure-comedy Im Bann des Eulenspiegels (1932). Wisbar quickly earned the ire of the oncoming Nazi authority by making Anna und Elisabeth (1933), a follow-up to Mädchen in Uniform with the same stars and gay subtext. To play nice with Goebbels’ new Ministry of Propaganda, Wisbar’s next film, Flag of the Righteous Seven (1934), was an adaptation of German-language Swiss writer Gottfried Keller about romance, bourgeois mores, and regional life in the 1800s. The film won an award at the Venice Film Festival, and Wisbar’s career struggled on for a few more years. Wisbar was however to remain deeply at odds with the Nazis, in part because his wife Eva was Jewish: the state stripped him of his passport and forced the couple to divorce, and after he was finally blacklisted in 1938, Wisbar fled the country. He became an American citizen and found a niche making low-budget features and then TV shows in Hollywood. Eventually returning to West Germany in the 1950s, Wisbar found new but strictly domestic success there again with works about dark chapters in the war like the Battle of Stalingrad and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, an adaptation of Wolfgang Ott’s grim precursor to Das Boot, Sharks and Little Fish (1957), as well as post-war issue movies, before his death in 1967.
Fährmann Maria, or Ferryman Maria, could well stand as the last authentic product of the classic German cinema age, that time when the national industry that stood so tall between the Great War and doomed by the rise of Hitler. The great, endlessly influential German Expressionist movement in film kicked off by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) represented the kind of dark, sombre, highly psychologised drama the Nazis instinctively hated, and Fährmann Maria kept something of that style’s essence alive in a time when it had become verboten, although carefully mediated through a nominally more realistic, folksy approach, exploring a supernatural tale in a manner that also evokes a bygone sense of the Germanic landscape and communal identity: the word heimat, homeland, which was for the Nazis a talismanic phrase becomes a mystically tinged destination in the film. One supporting character, a boozy but good-natured fiddle-player (Carl de Vogt), evokes a cheery, open ideal of the parochial character as he’s constantly held up in his desire to return to his home by his love of the jug and a good time playing for people. And yet an undercurrent of intense unease and dislocation defines Fährmann Maria as it takes on a classic motif in German storytelling, the encounter of a young woman with Death personified in a battle between love and nihilism. That motif of Death and the Maiden was born in Renaissance art and transmitted through music like Schubert’s pieces of that title and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Fritz Lang had used it as the basis of his omnibus film The Weary Death (1921), and F.W. Murnau had transformed Dracula into a variant on it in his Nosferatu (1922). Fährmann Maria’s exceptionally simple dramatic landscape, which isn’t actually based on any specific folk tale but evokes many, nonetheless aims to synthesise an ideal variant on this basic conflict that could well have dropped from the lips of some grandmother around the campfire some starlit walpurgisnacht.
The setting is a small village and the nearby ferry crossing that traverses a wide river, the few landmarks in the midst of a landscape of wavering, wind-ruffled pines and twitching reeds, and patches of sucking marshland. The rope-guided ferryboat is tended by an old man (Karl Platen), who maintains the service day in and day out, shuttling people from one bank to the other. The river is borderland between two unidentified regions. A mournful song about a ferry crossing resounds under the opening credits: in the transposition into the first proper scene this song is revealed this song is being performed by the fiddler as he’s shuttled across the river by the old ferryman. The ferryman mocks the fiddler for the ease with which he gets waylaid by his appetites and his rootless habits, and explains that the fiddler’s very coin represents the last payment he has to make to own the ferry outright. That night, the old ferryman is awakened by the dull ring of the ploughshare that serves as the gong for service on the far side of the bank, and he hauls himself out of bed to answer it. When he reaches the far shore, he is intimidated by the grim-faced, black-clad man (Peter Voß) he picks up, and as he labours to get the ferry back to the other side, his tugs on the guide rope become increasingly laborious and strained, until he keels over dead from heart failure, and the mysterious man in black begins to pull the ferry back the other way. The old man has been claimed by Death.
This early sequence is a superb display of technique from Wisbar. Having established the eerie, somnolent, exposed mood of the ferry’s surrounds, he intensifies for physical effect as he cuts between the old man’s face, his hands on the rope, and the implacable visage of Death, the lateral movement of the camera obeying a rigorous left-to-right viewpoint on the ferry’s motion, capturing the sense of strain and the failing pulse of the old man, matched to a shimmering, atonal score, until his hands cease to work properly. Death catches him and lays him down gently, a peaceful fate met at the very apotheosis of the old labourer’s life, his death at the moment of his triumph both a stinging irony but also a deliverance from any form of disappointment. Enter Maria (Sybille Schmitz), every bit the old man’s opposite, a young woman without a home or community, but destined to step into his shoes and face a rather different confrontation with Death. She wakes up after spending a night sleeping in the barn, pausing to listen to children singing in their school house, the pleasure and impossible distance of such inclusivity written on Maria’s face. Wisbar constantly evokes the folk tradition he’s burrowing into here through song and music, arts that bind together communities but also transcend such boundaries – the indolent fiddler is always half-heartedly trying to get home but is just as happy and seemingly more successful out of his native land – as a form of cultural currency people exchange. Maria enters the village and ducks the local policeman, long used as she is to trouble from such earthly powers. The mayor sees her doing this and makes light fun of her, before challenging her to take over the ferry, a job no-one else wants because “the Evil One haunts the far bank,” to prove she can make her stand.
Maria takes on the job, and quickly becomes an object of fascination for some, including a local landowner (Gerhard Bienert) who regards her and questions her brusquely, but soon proves to be establishing romantic rights over her. One night Maria, like her predecessor, hears the ploughshare ring on the far bank, and goes over to fetch her fare. At first she sees no-one, but then spots a man (Aribert Mog) crumpled on the ground: he mutters something fearful about being pursued, and she speeds him to the other bank as a squad of black-clad men on horseback dash through the neighbouring woods and line up on the shore, watching their quarry glide to safety. Maria stashes the young man in her hut and looks after him as he’s badly injured. The man recovers and they fall in love, but then he lapses into a fever and she’s forced to tend to him during his raving dissociation. She must also keep him hidden from locals like the fiddler, who, drunk and boisterous, wants to cross the river, and then the landowner when he comes around to invite her to a village dance. But during the night, Maria answers the gong and picks up the man in black, whose unnerving visage Maria instantly recognises as bringing evil intent for her lover, and the man quickly announces the fugitive is the object of his search. Trying to lead him astray, Maria escorts him into town and becomes his partner in the dance. This infuriates the farmer, who had deduced Maria had a man in her house, and, believing the man in black is him, publically brands her a slut whilst also inadvertently informing Death his prey is back in her abode.
Wisbar seems to have been chiefly under the influence of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) with this film, adapting aspects of its aesthetic, like Dreyer’s use of carefully stylised location shooting to create a different brand of crepuscular atmosphere to the heavy stylisation more typical of the Expressionist mode, and utilising Schmitz, who had played a woman suffering a vampire’s attention in Dreyer’s film. The troubled Schmitz had difficulty landing lead roles in the Nazi-run film industry in spite of her talent because she hardly looked the Aryan heroine, but Wisbar’s casting of her here turned this into a strong subtext lurking behind her character’s yearning for a place and role in the world, whilst also exploiting her specific, wounded beauty in a manner that perfectly suits her character. Maria is caught in the void straddling zones cultural, political, sexual, even life and death. Her tentative smile and large, melancholy eyes describe the strain of her life even as she goes about her work with stoic resolve and tries to keep a flame alight in her spirit. It’s clear she’s fended off a hundred men of the landowner’s ilk, but lets a real smile appear like a spring dawn on her face as she falls for the handsome stranger who embodies all the things she has never had but is forced to join her in this psychic no-man’s-land. Maria, usually dressed in gypsy-like garb that suggest the reason why she’s such an outsider, appears before her lover clad in a new dress, albeit a piece of garb that, with its ruffled collar, seems almost anachronistic even for the film’s vaguely nineteenth century setting, as if casting herself in a role outside of time. And that’s exactly where she is: Maria, whose name instantly evokes religious dimensions, takes over from Charon, shuttling souls between worlds across the Styx, giving her some unspoken form of power that lets her challenge Death himself.
Wisbar’s off-screen troubles lend credence to the hints constantly given throughout Fährmann Maria that he’s not just describing some historical fantasia, however. Although possessed of some lightly used supernatural powers, Death is personified as a resolutely tangible force kept at bay by the rules of the physical world he manifests in, an implacable agent for a dark and oppressive realm. Maria’s lover is specifically characterised as fleeing a repressive government, hazily defined as an imposition of invaders he and his patriotic friends want to drive out, whilst the citizens of the village regard the far shore as a place where the Devil has made dominion. The film’s most powerful images, of the horsemen pursuing the young man ride out of the forest and perch on the shoreline staring at the couple in the ferry, and the first appearance of Death in his trim, black, semi-military uniform, regarding Maria with blood-freezing severity, evoke a definite sensation of totalitarian menace lurking just beyond the limits of the frame and definition. In one scene the young man, in his fever state, begins to enthusiastically sing one of the patriotic songs he and his fellows use as an anthem, suggesting the Nazi love of such anthems twisted into a grotesque dirge that drives Maria into weeping despair. Maria is left cut off from all communal aid as Death realises her deception, even muffling the sound of the church bell she tries to ring to rouse the villagers to the deadly being in their midst with his power, literalising the feeling of being stranded in the midst of a country suddenly wilfully deaf, dumb, and blind to the new predations of power quickly becoming everyday fact. Maria is compelled by Death to lead him through the swamp between the village and the ferry. Maria makes the self-sacrificing gesture that is always the key to the Death-and-the-Maiden tale, and as she prays that her gesture protect her lover, she leads Death along the treacherous path through the swamp, tricking him into falling into the black mud, where he sinks silently into the murk, whilst she manages to keep her footing and escape.
The final shots of Fährmann Maria see Maria and her lover crossing the river along with the fiddler and gazing out upon Maria’s new country, a grace note that seems a fulfilment of the patriotic dream of reclaiming the homeland, but with the vital, sneaky corollary that it’s a victory of the exiles and outcasts over the forces that oppress it. Wisbar’s visual sensibility is attuned to the horizontal in landscape and movement, a particularly tricky art to master for filmmakers working with the boxy classic Academy ratio, and fitted specifically to the environs Wisbar deals with here, the flat, semi-desolate spaces around the village and the glassy waters of the river, the to-and-fro motions of the boat and of Maria’s queasy dance with Death at the village dance filmed alike, the camera’s very range of movement communicating the stark, transfixing linearity of life in this space that finally, towards the end, gives way to the promise of gold sunlight on rolling mountains. Wisbar’s journey, at least for the time being, went in the opposite direction to his two heroic lovers, going into exile and soon finding his real reunion with his wife impossible. A decade later, Wisbar found a niche in the so-called “Poverty Row” studio PRC after a long period on the beach trying to get residency and a work permit. His first American film had been a teen crime potboiler, Secrets of a Sorority Girl (1945). For his second, he leveraged the notion of remaking his best-known work, and the result was entitled Strangler of the Swamp.
The basic plot remained the same: after the death of a ferryman serving a remote town, a young woman named Maria takes over his job and finds herself battling a malign spirit for the life of the man she loves. Working with one of PRC’s famously stringent budgets – none of their films, supposedly, cost more than $100,000 – Wisbar transposed the story into a much more overtly theatrical and classically spooky setting, a bayou swamp choked with reeds and vines traversed by the ferry. Strangler of the Swamp strongly contrasts Fährmann Maria in its approach even as its mood of dislocation and morbid romanticism is retained, whilst the alterations to the story point to a different set of animating concerns for this take. Here, the spectral figure isn’t Death itself but the shade of a man killed by his community, and the death he brings serves a programme of retribution. At the outset, the dead body of a villager who has died in the swamp is brought back to town, where the townsfolk begin to argue frantically about their circumstances: several similar deaths have taken place, all seemingly strangled by vines or reeds wrapped around their necks in grotesque approximation of a hangman’s noose. Many think they’ve been living under a curse ever since the former ferryman, Douglas (Charles Middleton), was lynched as a murderer.
Most of the men involved, including the mayor, Sanders (Robert Barratt), anxiously repudiate the notion even as they clearly live in fear of whatever lurks out in the bayou awaiting them, whilst the women of the village form a determined front, heading out into the swamp to strip down the noose that was used to kill Douglas. Joseph the ferryman (Frank Conlan), whose testimony was vital to identifying Douglas as a killer and who stepped into his post eagerly, sheepishly objects to the women’s proposals that he offers himself as sacrifice to the spectre to mollify its rage: “I’m only seventy! That’s not old for a man! I have plans for the future.” But soon enough, responding to the clang of the gong on the far side of the swamp, he encounters Douglas, a hollow-eyed wraith emanating from the shadows to deliver up stern pronouncements of waiting punishment: Joseph tries to toss the noose the women left on the ferry overboard, only for it to snare on a log, wrap around his neck, and strangle him, thus fulfilling Douglas’ design without any actual violent act. Amongst Joseph’s papers is discovered his written confession to the murder Douglas committed, as well as his admission that he framed Douglas to get his job. But the wraith is hardly satisfied with his death, and continues to await chances to kill off the rest of his lynch mob and their descendants. Joseph’s granddaughter Maria (Rosemary La Planche) arrives in town, hoping to find a place to settle after leaving a life of toil and alienation in the big city. Shocked to learn of her grandfather’s death, she nonetheless determines to take over his job as ferryman. She soon meets Sanders’ son Chris (Blake Edwards – yes, that Blake Edwards) and falls for him, but the curse is hardly averse to tormenting a pair of young lovers.
Wisbar had joined Edgar G. Ulmer in productive exile at PRC. Like another émigré Fritz Lang’s Hollywood debut, Fury (1936), Strangler reads in part as a condemnation of lynch culture in the US, whilst the decision to locate the story in one of his new country’s more primal backwaters echoes Jean Renoir’s venture into similar climes for his American debut, Swamp Water (1942). Strangler of the Swamp might also have represented an attempt by Wisbar and PRC to tap the same well Val Lewton’s horror films had so lucratively drilled for RKO, with a similarly literate, carefully stylised script to the kind Lewton liked, although Wisbar’s concrete approach to the supernatural stands somewhat at odds with the airier, more suggestive Lewton touch. The style here is also quite different to the restrained, deceptively naturalistic approach of Fährmann Maria, here turning the limitations of PRC’s productions into an asset by employing one spectacularly dreamlike, claustrophobic locale, where the totemic hangman’s noose dangles in the wind from an old gnarled tree, the rickety docks for the ferry jut into misty waters, an old, ruined church looms skeletally in the distance, and the town huddles on the fringes. Wisbar’s fluidic camerawork is still in evidence, tracking the course of the ferry across the swamp with cool regard, if not as carefully tailored to fit the geography physical and mental of the story. The guilt and paranoia experienced by the townsfolk has infected the land about them, and Wisbar goes more a sense of gothic entanglement befitting a dense and miasmic sense of corruption, the overgrown weeds of the psychic landscape. He often uses superimpositions to obscure the images, the appearances of Middleton’s withered, eyeless ghost masked by haze, the reeds and foliage of the bayou crowding the frame, as if animated and determined to invade the human world that clings to this landscape.
The result makes Strangler of the Swamp something like the platonic ideal of a dankly atmospheric, low-budget horror film. Severed from the culture and place that informed Fährmann Maria’s folkloric lustre, Strangler refits the story for a place that seems to hover right at the edge of liminal reality, a psychological neverland. That said, the story fits with surprising ease into the dramatic landscape of America’s backwood regions and the stark, moralistic, often supernatural flavour of songwriting in those areas – Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie, or Robert Johnson could readily have sung of a similarly elemental tale. Perhaps a seed was planted here for the later burgeoning of backwoods horror as a permanent sub-branch of Hollywood horror cinema. Thematically, Strangler of the Swamp diverges tellingly from its predecessor. Wisbar’s PRC stablemate Ulmer had made his statement of utter moral exhaustion with his famous noir Detour a few months earlier, and Strangler, although ultimately not as nihilistic, seems similarly like a meditation on the psychic landscape left by the war: by the time Strangler was made, the Nazis had fallen and their crimes had stained the soul of humanity. Whereas the community in Fährmann Maria is essentially ignorant and innocent of the uncanny drama unfolding in its midst, Strangler in the Swamp is about vengeance reaching out from beyond the grave to attack a communal guilt – the evil is no longer an invasive one but internal, and the theme of the sins of the father is introduced as Maria and Chris must fight to escape the debt of their parents.
In the climax, Wisbar revisits the moment from the original when Maria finds she can’t make a sound ringing the church bell and stages it more expressly as sequence depicting social exclusion, as Maria dashes through the village trying to find aid, only to have doors and windows slam shut and curtains drawn by the vengeful spirit’s power, shutting off all recourse for his outsider heroine. Both films obviously share a female protagonist who proves that love is stronger than death and offers her own life in place of her man’s, and in Strangler Wisbar takes this theme of feminine strength further. Maria here meets initial doubts she can do her job but readily adapts to it, but the menfolk of the town are variously foolish, self-deluding, and corrupt, where the women are generally wiser and try to act against the curse where their men obfuscate and deny the problem. Chris’s father objects to his relationship with Maria because he knows she’s the granddaughter of a killer, where his mother (Effie Parnell) recognises her character and encourages the match. When Sanders tells his son he can’t marry Maria, Chris retorts that his own father took just as big a part in murdering Douglas, setting in motion the first rumblings of the generational conflict that would define so much of the post-war age. The town lost its church to fire, the ruins standing in moody isolation out in the swamp embodying the wreckage of the local culture’s ethical standing, and Sanders proposes, instead of rebuilding it with the money the town has collected for the purpose, that they use the funds to drain the swamp instead, his onwards-and-upwards rhetoric exposed as an attempt to avoid reckoning with the past.
One significant disparity between Wisbar’s two films is that La Planche, although fairly good in the lead, isn’t nearly as enticingly enigmatic or camera-fixating a presence as Schmitz (sadly, both women also died young), and the standard of acting in Strangler, although competent, is merely customary for a low-budget film of the time and place – even the very young Edwards is too callow to make much of an impression. On the other hand, Strangler isn’t weighed down by the smarmy folksiness of the earlier film’s fiddler character. The finale suffers from the hampered staging dictated by the limited setting, involving a lot of stumbling around in dry ice-clogged corners of the set trying to make it look like action is happening. Nonetheless Strangler of the Swamp stands as an example of what a real director could manage with even the most cynically straitened production of the day, a delicious visual experience that offers a real jolt of Wisbar’s poetic streak, and one of the few major horror films of the ‘40s not to have Lewton’s name attached. As in Fährmann Maria, Strangler’s Maria, exhausted by her frantic and desperate efforts to help Sanders in protecting his injured son from the wraith, offers herself in her lover’s place fends off dark fate amidst the sanctified ruins of the church. But Strangler pushes the import of the sacrificial gesture more strongly than Fährmann Maria, in a narrative shaped by a more personal and urgent sense of responsibility: where in the earlier film Death is outwitted by a touch of native guile as well as the ardent honesty of Maria’s prayers, Douglas is mollified by the gesture and dissolves in the night as Maria gives a benediction for his aggrieved soul. In Strangler, the victory feels quite different, as Maria must redeem the whole community through a selfless act, receiving a forgiveness that cannot be asked for, only granted by the aggrieved dead. Maria triumphs over entropy in her personification, however straggly and assailed she seems, of the finer elements of human nature and of woman herself, a detail that points up the irony in her job title. She is the being who encompasses life, death, and rebirth, who spans both shores.