Destiny (Der müde Tod) (Cert 12)
2 Discs DVD/Blu-ray Combo (Distributor: Eureka) Running Time: 98 minutes approx.
For modern cinema goers weaned on glossy HD spectacles resplendent with CGI effects to make the impossible possible, the works of the early days of film must seem incredibly archaic to the point of being from a literal different millennia, and not just a hundred years ago. No sound, no colour (save for tints), and the most rudimentary special effects, youngsters today must wonder where the appeal is.
But if it wasn’t for the silent pioneers starting from scratch then going on to influence the next generation, who in turn influence those at the cusp of a technological revolution that finally inspired the computer geeks of today, well, you can probably see where I am going with this.
Fritz Lang’s Destiny from 1921 has been restored and reissued by Eureka, and is a prime example of a film maker still in the relatively early stages of his career stretching himself in terms of ambition, scope and practical resolutions to meet those ambitions. Broken down in six chapters (or verses) this morality tale ponders the maxim of “love being stronger than death” but is not a portmanteau film in anyway.
It begins with a happily married couple (Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen) travelling by carriage when they stop to pick up a hitchhiker (Bernhard Goetze) and take him to the next town. This stern faced stranger puts the wind in the locals with his insistence on buying the land next to the local cemetery, around which he builds a giant wall that has no discernible entrance.
One night when the couple are at the tavern, the stranger joins them. While the woman is pre-occupied elsewhere, the stranger and her husband disappear. She tracks the stranger down at the cemetery where he reveals himself be Death. The woman begs to have her husband back so Death sets her a task – save the lives of three people due to die and she can have hubby back.
There is a definite fairy tale quality to the plot and they usually end with a didactic message of immense cautionary and moral value and everyone living happy ever after. But this is Fritz Lang we are talking about here, so we should expect these conventions to be gleefully subverted in some way and he doesn’t disappoint. Bearing in mind this comes before Lang’s heavier works like Metropolis but the signs are there that bigger things are on his horizon.
Lang uses three of the six versus of his tale to cover the woman’s quest to regain her husband, spread across three points in history and in different locations. In typical Lang style, Death measures the lives of us mortals via candles and the progress of their melting usually denotes when their time is up.
But this is not always the case, demonstrated when the flame of a tall candle suddenly snuffs out and a newborn baby appears in Death’s arms. Begging for her husband’s return, the woman uses the love is stronger than death line to win him over, prompting the challenge. Three candles that resemble wax puddles sporting flimsy flames represent the impending trio the woman must save using love or it’s game over for the hubby.
The first story is set in Persia during Ramadan where Princess Zobeide (the woman) is involved with an infidel (the man), much to the chagrin of her brother the Caliph (Eduard von Winterstein). Next the woman travels to Venice, where, as noblewoman Monna Fiametta she is engaged to Girolamo (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) but is in love with lowly merchant Gianfrancesco instead.
Finally, our heroine and her other half show up in Ancient China as Tiao Tsien and Liang, assistants to magician A Hi (Paul Biensteldt) who has been requested to amuse the corpulent Emperor (Karl Huszar) or else. This segment sees Lang flexing his creative muscles the most as it includes flying carpets, tiny armies and various transformations, making it the most light-hearted chapter of the three.
Returning to the earlier point about the technological limitations of the era, the effects do look comparably feeble to films even from a decade later but this was 1921 when filmmakers had to figure these things out using what they had. Lang was brimming with ideas for this film and he went all out in realising each one, even if it meant building giant structures to create the relative sense of scale, or in creating credible locations.
It would appear that in ensuring the sets and cultural representations of each country were as authentic as they could be at the time, the same wasn’t applied to casting. Even German filmmakers weren’t immune from dressing up their own actors to play foreigners, a notion probably not even considered contentious back then, but at least there are no blacked up faces.
Most of the characters are too distinguishable from your average drama tropes but it is the characterisation of Death that sees Lang think outside the box and present him in a totally unique light. We tend to view the Grim Reaper as the embodiment of evil but Lang’s vision sees him as man burdened with the most thankless and unpleasant job in the world.
His default look may be a permanent steely frown but Death is genuinely sympathetic towards his victims and would rather embrace life than do God’s bidding, hence giving the woman a chance to reunite with her husband. The religious aspect of his job had rarely been raised before and it is was this, along with his stoic pallor, that inspired Bergman’s depiction of Death in the seminal The Seventh Seal.
Considering the epics Lang would go on to produce over the next few years and the modern innovations they would introduce to the world, Destiny finds him learning what the medium of film can do and pushing it further for both his and everyone else’s benefit.
The path to greatness starts with that first step and this unquestionably is Lang’s first step.
Original German Intertitles With Optional English Subtitles
Score By Cornelius Schwehr, Performed By Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra Conducted By Frank Strobel
Audio Commentary By Film Critic Tim Lucas
A New Video Essay By David Cairns
44 Page Booklet
Rating – ****
Man In Black