Anton Walbrook may have played more multi-dimensional characters in other films, but never with the same frightening intensity as in this one. The cast is uniformly excellent, but it's his performance as Hermann that really makes the film memorable. Hermann is a strange sort of cinematic hero with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. His personality is dominated by four of the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, wrath, and greed. As for lust, he lusts only for power, money and influence, his declarations of love being completely false. Gluttony is not an issue, as he lives in poverty in order to horde what money he has. As for sloth, he exerts extraordinary effort into fulfilling his schemes, which are entirely self-serving. Sounds like a thoroughly unpleasant fellow. But Walbrook makes this brooding, scheming, petty, and utterly reprehensible nonentity with a Napoleon complex into a fascinating character study -- a real tour-de-force. The Vienna-born Walbrook (originally named Adolph Anton Wilhelm Wohlbrueck) exaggerates his Teutonic accent to Peter Lorre-like intensity, to great effect. It's this film that made him one of my all time favorite actors.
The look of this film is also extraordinary. Even in this pristine presentation, the cinematography is very dark and deeply shadowed. The shadowy look of the film, along with some oddly angular or distorted shots, is suggestive of expressionist style. The story is told very directly and the plot moved along efficiently, with no superfluous action, which adds to the unreal atmosphere of the piece. Everything associated with the story seems to take place in quick succession. In a city as huge as St. Petersburg, Hermann wanders from the spooky booksellers' shop directly to the old countess's house purely by chance. Every element of the story is essential, and executed with maximum effect and style. The funeral scene in particular is unforgettable.
What a pleasure to find that this terrific, but relatively obscure, film has finally gotten a DVD release, and looks better than I've ever seen it looking. Almost everyone who's commented on it cites the fact that it is little known, and maybe this new DVD will change that a bit.