Fährmann Maria (Ferryman Maria) is a 1936 fantasy film that IMDB calls “The last classic German Expressionist film made in Germany before the film industry was swallowed up by the Third Reich.” Deutsche Filmothek calls it “arguably one of the 10 greatest films of the Third Reich and together with the 1935 version of Student von Prag, the last great, dark fantastic film from the German tradition in this genre until the end of the Third Reich.”
It’s a lovely film, directed by Frank Wisbar; a mood piece whose style is an interesting mix of silent and sound film techniques. The atmospheric and sometimes abstract cinematography and lighting design show the clear influence of the Expressionist school. It’s a bit short on story, but the visual design and lead actress Sybille Schmitz’s striking presence make it worth a watch.
The film opens with an elderly boatman ferrying a fiddler across the river to an unnamed village, as the musician sings and regales the boatman with a melancholy song, rather to the boatman’s displeasure. As the fiddler pays his fare upon reaching the other side, the ferryman remarks that this fare is the last bit of money he needs to finally buy his boat, after fifteen years of labor.
Sooo, of course, the ferryman’s next passenger is a tall, silent, forbidding man dressed all in black: Death himself. Yup. Poor ferryman.
The village (apparently only reachable by that ferry), advertises for a new ferryman. The post is eventually taken by a homeless and undocumented young woman, Maria. One night, she ferries across a wounded, ill young man who is fleeing from some unspecified enemies. She hides the young man in her hut and tries to nurse him back to health. They fall in love. Then one night, Death returns, looking for the young man….
The general plot is a common folkloric theme: a young woman who must fight Death for the man she loves, possibly at the cost of her own life. Fritz Lang used this plot in 1921, for his beautiful silent film Der Müde Tod (“The Weary Death,” aka Destiny). Lang’s film is the better one; despite being a portmanteau of three linked short tales plus the frame, I think its storyline hangs together better than Wisbar’s sketchy plot. Certainly Fritz’s versions of both Death and the Maiden are better fleshed out. It’s been a while since I’ve watched it, but I seem to recall that the heroine’s love interest in Fritz’s film might have also been a moderately interesting character, something that definitely can’t be said about Maria’s bland young man.
On the other hand, the Death character in Wisbar’s film, played by Peter Voß, is wonderfully ominous, and Carl de Vogt, who plays the Fiddler, is also fun to watch. Sybille Schmitz’s performance as Maria feels a bit mannered and melodramatic by today’s standards, but that may just be her direction; it’s a performance that seems consistent with the Expressionist approach to acting (and with silent film conventions, as well). And when she’s onscreen, Schmitz’s luminous and charismatic presence dominates the scene. If only history had been different; she might have had a much more successful career .
Maybe someday someone like Kino Lorber will restore and revive this film. I hope they do, but until then you can download an English-subtitled, unrestored version of Fährmann Maria at the Internet Archive. If you are interested in old fantasy films, or in German expressionist cinema, you should check out Fährmann Maria. Thanks to Deutsche Filmothek for making this piece of cinematic history available for us to appreciate.
 Sybille Schmitz made her film debut in 1928, and came to prominence right around the time the Nazi party did. She managed to keep working in the German film industry, despite her “non-Aryan” appearance, which I imagine kept her from the better leading roles. Ironically, she was shunned and had trouble getting roles after the war because of her continuous work during the Third Reich (Lil Dagover, the star of Der Müde Tod, also continued working in the German film industry during the war, but she was a much bigger star and seems to have emerged unscathed). Schmitz’s life spiraled into alcoholism and drug abuse; she committed suicide in 1955, at the age of 45.↩
All images from Fährmann Maria (1936). Source: Deutsche Filmothek, Internet Archive