#39 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
If I had been a contemporary of Fritz Lang in his early career, this is about the point that I’d begin writing him off. There was some entertainment in the first of the Spiders episodes, but the only real positive attribute of the next two films was the production design. Here, in The Wandering Shadow, there’s still a strong visual element that comes up from time to time, mostly when filming in the mountains, but the story is a complete jumble. Not helped by the fact that a good chunk of the film is lost, it’s an overplotted, under-written slog.
Being incomplete isn’t always a deal breaker. Thinking back to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Der var engang, another incomplete film that I actually kind of fell in love with despite the missing sections, explanatory text helps fill in the gaps and can even provide some level of emotional catharsis if the remaining elements support it. It can also end up like John Ford’s Mother Machree where the final two reels were completely missing, and there was no way to tell where the story was even going to go. I don’t think the missing parts of The Wandering Shadow are debilitating to understanding the film. They cause a certain confusion, especially early, but that’s eventually overcome. The problem isn’t that there are missing sections, but that the sections that are there are all situation and no character.
Irmgard (Mia May) is on a train into the mountains of Germany where, coincidentally, her deceased husband’s cousin, Wil Brand (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who is in pursuit of her in order to claim the inheritance he thinks is his, is also riding. When he sees her emotional state, he sends off a telegraph to his lawyer to stop all efforts at claiming the inheritance. I don’t know what the point of all that was. Anyway, Irmgard is fleeing from her husband’s twin brother John (Hans Marr) for unclear reasons that will get cleared up. All we need to know in the beginning is that she’s fleeing him, so when he catches up, Wil helps Irmgard flee into the mountains where she goes up alone. John is in quick pursuit, though, and catches up with her just in time for a mysterious mountain man to save her from John. It turns out that this mountain man is, completely coincidentally, Georg (also Marr), her husband. Well, not really. We’ll get to that.
It’s in Georg’s cabin that we finally get the reasons for the first half hour of the film in the form of two extended flashbacks, one from each character, that explains how they both got there. Georg was a noted philosopher who was a proponent of free love when he met Irmgard. They fell in love, but his affection for her was at odds with his beliefs. When she conspired with John to use his identical look to forge a wedding certificate at the local church that said that Irmgard and Georg were married, Georg (the real one) decides to fake his death and flee without telling anyone (again…that Irmgard ran into Georg in the middle of the mountains in the middle of a chase was a complete coincidence). John seemingly wants to maintain the fiction (or reality, I guess) that he is married to Irmgard so that he can inherit Georg’s money. The way all of this information is divvied out is really dense without any real room for character.
Why does Irmgard love Georg? Because the plot demands it, essentially. Who is Wil? Doesn’t matter. Why is John so desperate for the cash? Because he’s bad, I guess. It’s all super thin, and that undermines any sort of emotional catharsis that’s supposed to happen when the two meet up and then spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out ways to get back together. She can’t abandon their daughter (who should be 2 but looks at least 5), and he can’t give up on a vow he made to a statue of the Virgin Mary carried the Christ child in the mountains that he wouldn’t leave until it comes alive and walks away. The predictability of how this is going to manifest is pretty obvious once we see Irmgard taking care of a poor woman’s child. It’s also really weird that the final intertitle completely forgets their daughter, seemingly implying that they abandon her.
Really, the only thing going for the film is the location shooting. Filming in the German Alps, Lang uses the high mountains to create some very nice compositions, in particular around the vertical space with people looming over each other. Set work is much more mundane, though the destruction of Georg’s shock in an avalanche, as seen from the inside, does show some very nice detail (though the set itself is understandably threadbare). In the end, though, it feels like Lang, and his screenwriter wife Thea van Harbou) were struggling to find stories to tell within the new medium that they were still learning. Perhaps it was increasing pressure from Joe May, his producer, to find a hit, working in melodrama that seems to have been much more popular in the past than now.
The incompleteness doesn’t help the film, but I also don’t think it really hurts it either. The film simply isn’t that good.