Paul has withdrawn from the world, devastated at the loss of his wife, Marie. Yet his frozen heart begins to melt when he meets a dancer, Marietta. The young woman becomes a mirror to his desires upon which he projects the “return” of his dead spouse. Paul sinks ever deeper into buried layers of his psyche. He only returns to reality after experiencing a nightmarish vision in which he commits murder. Can he break free of his psychological chains and return to a normal life?
»The music of ›Die tote Stadt‹ is essential to the dramatic development as well as to the cinematic sense of growing horror.« Writing in the Dresdner Anzeiger in December 1921 after the Dresden premiere of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s phenomenally successful opera, Eugen Thari’s opinion of the music reflects the spirit of a new age: The composer’s arresting score perfectly complements the movie-like conception of the main figure’s mental distress. The music takes the listener on an oppressive journey into an emotional abyss. »Die tote Stadt« by the young Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a former »wunderkind«, made him – alongside Richard Strauss – the most performed German opera composer of the 1920s.
Widower Paul has long been living in seclusion, creating a cult around his dead wife, Marie. Everything in one room, the »Temple of Memories«, reminds him of the deceased. His housekeeper, Brigitta, reports to Paul‘s friend, Frank, that the widower has undergone a strange transformation. Incensed, the latter tells his unbe-lieving friend about his meeting the dancer Marietta, in whom he believes to recognize his deceased wife. Paul is now projecting the miracle of his wife‘s fleshly return onto Marietta. The young woman comes to pay Paul her first visit. Her presence lets the widower believe in the uncanny: “In you who came, my dead one came, my Marie.” Dream and reality become blurred for Paul: His dead spouse appears to him. In a dialogue they assure each other of their mutual love. In this situation, Marietta is like an intruder.
Repressed and guilty feelings break loose in Paul‘s subconscious. Images roll past him. In a nebulous world he meets his housekeeper Brigitta, who announces that she will quit her service to become a Beguine. No less mysterious, but most of all disappointing, is Paul‘s meeting with Frank. As if transfigured, the latter reveals to him that he is also having an affair with Marietta now – as is apparently the case with Paul, too. He breaks with Paul. Amongst her theatre colleagues, Marietta is the absolute centre of attention. They bizarrely enliven the darkness of the city with a high-spirited party that is no stranger to melancholy either, however. Inspired by this atmosphere, Fritz the Pierrot sings a song about past happiness. Paul is drawn ever deeper into the layers of his soul. Proceeding before his eyes is a gruesome spectacle wherein Marietta rises from the dead. The evil prank and the theatre company dissolve. Marietta and Paul begin to argue about jealousies and accusations until he reveals that he was only looking for his deceased wife in her. Marietta gives in, recognizing her greatest asset in comparison with the deceased: life. Demanding the past be forgotten, the two of them work themselves up into a frenzy.
Before a portrait of the deceased wife, Marietta challenges the deceased. Can she, can life, win? As if he weren‘t there, Paul permits himself to be captivated by the religious atmosphere of a procession passing by his house and pursues his memories of Marie. Marietta mocks his piety: “Whoever loves you has to share you with dead and saintly beings.” She keeps on provoking Paul until he strangles Marietta. Paul awakens from his daydream. He is slowly regaining consciousness in the situation he was in when Marietta bade him farewell on her visit. Frank advises Paul to leave the city and start a new life. Paul realizes the finite nature of earthly existence.