Hilde Warren & Death (Hilde Warren und Der Tod) 1917

Director: Joe May
"I am the one who relieves sorrow...who beds weary heads on pillows and opens the door to freedom..."
The actress Hilde Warren is offered a choice... accept a life marked by violence and tragedy or willingly embrace the cold hand of Death. Which would you choose? A morality tale with an early screenplay by fantasy film-meister Fritz Lang.

Hilde Warren, a successful actress, appears in a play produced by her friend Hans Von Wengraf. Alone after a rehearsal, she is accosted by a spectral vision of Death, who offers her the peace of eternal rest away from life's suffering. She flees in horror, describing her experience to Hans, who then plucks up the courage to ask for her hand in marriage. Hilde turns him down. 

Hans (Hans Mierendorff) comforts a distraught
Hilde (Mia May).
Hilde instead is in love with a rogue named Hector Roger, who unknown to her is planning a bank robbery. After the robbery, an exultant Hector agrees to marry Hilde, but the law soon closes in and he is killed by police in a gun battle. The widowed Hilde discovers she is pregnant. Again, Death calls on her, and again she refuses his entreaties. She moves away to the country to raise her child, Egon, alone.

Years pass, and Hans and Hilde are re-acquainted. They marry, despite Hilde's fears that Egon has inherited his father's criminal attributes. As Egon's behaviour grows worse, a frustrated Hans begs Hilde to give up her wayward son. She refuses and shortly afterwards Hans commits suicide. For the third time, Death offers to end her suffering and is refused.

Egon grows up with all of his father's vanity and malice, emotionally blackmailing his mother into funding his life of vice. The final straw comes for Hilde when Egon, on the run from the police, returns home demanding money. Rather than let him escape, his mother shoots him in cold blood. Hilde is arrested for her crime -- in her prison cell, she is once again visited by Death, and this time she accepts his embrace.

Hilde Warren and Death is worth seeing as a snapshot of film makers who would move on to better things, but is still a fairly pedestrian film, even by the standards of the day. Hilde's ill-fated story is positively drenched in symbolism, yet director Joe May doesn't make the most of the opportunities offered by Fritz Lang's screenplay. Even Lang's characteristic mix of pulp-novel thrills and epic themes is only sketched out in Hilde, eighteen months before his own first stab at directing, though it would take just a few short years for the potency of his ideas to take him to the pinnacle of his profession.

It was Joe May who gave Lang his break as a screenwriter. When Lang wrote the screenplay for Hilde, he was still a lieutenant in the Austrian army, writing to pass the time while convalescing in a military hospital, and already he was tackling grand ideas. When he introduces us to Hilde Warren, she is in rehearsals for The Master of Palmyra, an 1889 symbolist play by A. Wilbrandt concerning the relationship between life and death; specifically, the idea that death is necessary to give life meaning. His deliberate inclusion of Wilbrandt's play underlines Hilde's strong association between Death and romantic love, a theme he would return to in his own film Der Muede Tod ('Weary Death', aka Destiny) four years later.

Hilde's two suitors represent polar opposites (honourable Hans offers security; Hector, vanity and reckless hedonism) that are echoed to an extent in the characters of the kindly Death and the self-centred, impulsive Hilde. In an early scene, we see Hilde speaking with the actor portraying Death, moments before the 'real' Death comes along and frightens her out of her wits. For too long she fails to realise that this Death is not a fearsome reaper of souls but a benign, merciful figure offering her respite from the downward spiral of her existence. A shadowy fourth member of the lover's triangle formed by Hilde, Hans and Hector.

Georg John as Death
It's not easy for us to sympathise with Lang's flighty heroine. Though only half the original film survives, what's left shows us a character motivated by vanity and pride. Time and again she is offered escape from her increasingly desperate circumstances either by Hans or by Death himself, and repeatedly she refuses it. Only when things get so bad that she murders her own son does she finally admit defeat. 

Tragically, actress Mia May (spouse of Hilde director Joe) was to suffer the loss of a child in real life. In 1924, her daughter Eva, at the time a popular but temperamental rising star, committed suicide aged only 22 when her fiancee Rudolf Seiber left her to be with his future wife Marlene Dietrich. Mia permanently retired from the film industry soon after her daughter's death.

Of all the figures associated with Hilde Warren, it's Fritz Lang's name that looms largest. Lang claimed in a 1965 interview to have acted in four roles in Hilde Warren"an old priest, Death, a young grocer, and another role which I don't remember...", but in what's left of the film there's little evidence of Lang's presence on-screen. Georg John is named in the credits as Death; he went on to appear in many of Lang's German films. You can spot him as the blind balloon-seller in M (1931) who identifies child-killer Peter Lorre by recognising the tune he whistles.

In reality, Lang had little direct involvement in Hilde Warren. Though he and Joe May often worked together, Lang later complained that May never gave him the credit he deserved, and the two parted company for good after collaborating on The Indian Tomb in 1922. And Lang, to be fair, was not alone in his ill-will for Joe May. Known to be as dictatorial on-set as his fellow Austrian Erich Von Stroheim, May founded May-Film in 1914 and kept the company afloat with a series of crime dramas featuring heroes Stuart Webb (Eyes of the Mummy's Harry Leidtke) and Joe Deebs. After Hilde, it was his wife Mia (whose stage name he adopted in 1902: he was born Julius Mandl) who got the pick of the starring roles.

May is best known nowadays for Asphalt (1929). Like so many others, he fled Nazi Germany and found work with Universal studios, where his abrasive manner kept him shackled to lowly B-picture material. He returned to fantasy with The Invisible Man Returns in 1940, and wrote The Invisible Woman soon after, but ended his film career a few years later to concentrate on running a Viennese restaurant in Hollywood.

End Credits:
Mia May (Hilde Warren), Hans Mierendorff (Hans Von Wengraf), Bruno Kastner (Hector Royer), Ernst Matray (Egon Warren), Georg John (Death), Hermann Pischa (Hotelartzt)
Producer: Joe May, Screenplay: Fritz Lang, Cinematography: Curt Courant, Art Director: Seigfried Wroblewsky.
May-Film 1917
Running time 40 mins.

Not available commercially - copies of the film's surviving 40 minutes can be seen online or bought from grey-market dealers.

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