After Victor Sjöström perfected the trick of double exposure in ‘The Phantom Carriage’, it continued to be used by other directors who wanted to conjure up worlds beyond our own, ones inhabited by ghosts and demons.
An early Fritz Lang film, and his first widely recognized success, ‘Between Two Worlds’ is an exquisite example of an exhilarating cinematic experience that ended up inspiring future filmmakers, Luis Buñuel, Douglas Fairbanks, Alfred Hitchcock and Dario Argento among them.
It also drew inspiration from past works (the effective use of double exposure is one thing; another is the movie’s episodical structure — an echo of D.W. Griffith’s ‘Intolerance’, parts of which were set in different times and places).
The opening scenes of ‘Between Two Worlds’ are as spine-chilling as anything seen in cinema by that time. A young couple (Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen) set out to celebrate their honeymoon in a peaceful hamlet, but their cheerfulness and optimism are dispelled when a pale, black-clad man (Bernard Goetzke) first hops their coach and later insists on sitting at their table at the inn.
When the stranger no longer resorts to just casting serious, deathly looks at the newlyweds, but also performs a trick of turning a chalice of wine into an ominous hourglass, it becomes clear that either the young man or the girl is doomed to die. Therefore, when in the morning the girl wakes up, and her husband is nowhere around, she realizes that the only chance to get him back is to visit the uninviting, walled house of the grim stranger who, rather obviously by then, appears to be Death impersonated.
Fortunately for the girl, Death is tired enough of its monotonous and unrewarding profession that it/he agrees to gamble with her for the life of the husband: she is given three chances to save people destined to die, and if she succeeds at least once, her loved one will be returned to her.
The girl then travels to Ancient Persia, seventeenth-century Venice and Imperial China to see whether love actually is, as the Bible says, stronger than death.
The wraparound story is consistently dark and serious, but Lang is not afraid to cheer the atmosphere up in the three episodes that constitute the main portion of the movie.
The part set in China is an all-out comedy, in which even special effects are employed for humorous effect (though the scene where one of the characters is transformed into a cactus with human features is at the same time funny and quite gruesome).
This is perhaps why ‘Between Two Worlds’ has never been as lauded by genre fans as ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (1920) or ‘Nosferatu’ (1922), which may have included minor comedic elements, but always kept them in check, so that the worlds they depicted never brightened too much.
Then again, when Lang returns to the somber mood in the last reel, he does so with the touch of a genuine horror director, and is greatly helped by Goetzke, who gives here one of the best cinematic portrayals of Death— and he does not need tones of makeup to make it work.
Even though a large portion of the movie’s running time is focused on adventure and comedy, there is still room for a handful of scary moments: the first meeting with Death on the road to the hamlet; the aforementioned hourglass prophecy of death; a queue of spirits passing through the wall to where Death dwells; human lives being represented by numerous candles of various lengths that can be blown out at any moment; the death of a newborn child when one of the candles does get blown out; Dagover’s character being chased by a flying horse; and the suspenseful climax in a burning house.
In the end, ‘Between Two Worlds’ emerges as much more than yet another movie about the inevitability of death, a subject that filmmakers from the post–World War I Germany were obsessed with.
From the technical point of view, it was a template for many future works of German Expressionism, while plot-wise it was, surprisingly, more like an appraisal of life than an ode to death.
There is a telling scene near the end of the movie, in which several characters complain about their lives and admit that they would love to die as soon as possible, but when such an opportunity arises, they all suddenly panic and choose to hold on to the existence they so ostensibly despise.
“All through his life, Lang adjusted his talent to meet the changes in his environment, and in so doing produced a body of creative work of unquestionable importance in the development of the history of cinema,” wrote Charles L.P. Silet, suggesting that Lang’s works should be analysed as a whole, without being divided into the “early German period” and the “mature American period” (an approach also preferred by Robin Wood).
And indeed, all movies made by Lang display some common themes and features, and prove that he was constantly improving as a director, even though he did not always work under perfect conditions.
After ‘Between Two Worlds’, Lang never helmed a project with so many horror elements, but some of his subsequent films dealt with very dark themes, for example ‘Dr. Mabuse’ (1922), ‘Siegfried’ (1923), ‘Kriemhild’s Revenge’ (1924), ‘The Niebelungen’ (1924), ’M’ (1931), and ‘The Testament of Dr. Mabuse’ (1932).
The groundbreaking sci-fi epic ‘Metropolis’ (1927) was to become the director’s most famous movie and even led to Goebbels offering Lang the position of the Third Reich’s appointed filmmaker; the proposal was promptly rejected and Lang soon left Germany, first for France and then for the United States, where he continued to make powerful and poignant films (like 1936’s ‘Fury’, 1942’s openly anti–Nazist’ Hangmen Also Die!’, 1944’s ‘Ministry of Fear’, 1956’s ‘Beyond a Reasonable Doubt’, and classy remakes of works by Jean Renoir: 1945’s ‘Scarlet Street’ and 1954’s ‘Human Desire’).
In 1958 Lang returned to Germany to make ‘The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse’ (1960), his last movie and a great finale for the character he brought to life in 1922.
Today overshadowed by Fritz Lang’s later masterpieces and largely undervalued, ‘Between Two Worlds’ is a highly inventive and influential piece of work that gives Death one of the most intriguing cinematic faces ever.