For anyone familiar with German director Fritz Lang through his most iconic works, Metropolis (1927) or M (1931), his 1921 film Der müde Tod (Destiny) may come as a bit of a surprise. Though it’s as thematically rich as those works and certainly as technically innovative, the delight of Destiny is in how unexpectedly playful it is, resulting in a film that, almost a century old, bounds long with an irreverent energy you wouldn’t immediately associate with either Lang or films of the German Expressionist cinema.
Subtitled ‘A German Folk Story in Six Verses’, Destiny (the original title of which literally translates to ‘The Tired Death’) is a kind of portmanteau film, held together by a central narrative wherein a grieving young woman (Lil Dagover) competes with an unusually sympathetic Death (Bernhard Goetzke) for the life of her recently deceased fiancé (Walter Janssen). Holding the main narrative (with its three self-contained stories) together is the conceit that love is as strong as death, and each story sees this idea put to the test.
The nature of the material seems closer to the oeuvre of F.W. Murnau than Lang’s, but these questions of mortality are just as much a staple of Lang’s work. Here, using a folkloric narrative structure, he and his co-writer Thea von Harbou (his wife and most vital collaborator) strip questions of life, death and mortality back to a beautiful simplicity, leaving the stories unencumbered by complex plotting and able to play out their morality tales with the directness of medieval mystery plays. And yet, even with these deep questions to ponder, Lang’s approach has a wonderful lightness of touch and a terrific sense of humour. In its opening minutes alone, Destiny delivers some wonderful comic beats that still work all these years later, thanks in part to their function of furthering character and narrative.
The figure of Death itself lies at the heart of this. Lang still acknowledges the icon of Death, a striking silhouette in black with hollow features and haunted eyes, but this Death has an almost Eeyore-like weariness to him, a down-and-out demeanour that not only serves as an important narrative and thematic device, but is also strangely funny. As a modern viewer, one could dismiss the humour in Destiny as just a consequence of the now seemingly hammy nature of silent-film acting, but it’s so clearly Lang’s intention, not just from the performances he elicits from the cast but also from his positioning of them in the frame. As he demonstrated later with Metropolis, Lang had a keen understanding of the semiotics of figures within a composition, and where in that later film he uses his mise en scène to crush them, here he uses it to amplify them as fairytale figures, agents of the melodramatic, romantic and ridiculous.
It’s also clear that the intention of Destiny, apart from its function as moral fable, was to be a piece of entertainment, and it succeeds wonderfully. The film is filled with dazzling special effects, many of them groundbreaking for the time, and while the main narrative is direct and clear, the three stories combine exotic locations with any excuse for a bit of magic. That makes them occasionally convoluted, but they’re also a chance for Lang to experiment and play. The second tale in particular – set during an Italian Carnevale – is a beautifully constructed visual pastiche, with Lang drawing on Renaissance painting composition to inform its distinct visual look and even mucking around with different aspect ratios. Many special effect-heavy films of the silent era favoured the visuals over the story, so Destiny is an early example of these classic (and still very charming) techniques being used to (mostly) support the narrative rather than (mostly) dictate what it should be.
That said, prepare yourself for the inevitably uncomfortable stereotypes that come with Western displays of orientalism. Recreations of Middle Eastern and Chinese cultures result in often misguided and ignorant design and representation; but, as with any work of that time, the film’s racism needs to be seen in the context in which it was made. These sections both add to the wonderful strangeness of Destiny and serve as artefacts of outdated stereotypes; as with any such archaism, they have a lot to teach us about the history of representation in the early days of cinema.
Destiny was not a success in Germany on its initial release, with many complaining that the film wasn’t ‘German’ enough (none of the film’s sequences are actually set in Germany). It found success though in other territories, and, watching it now, it’s easy to see the influence the film had on those that came after it. Its depiction of Death instantly recalls the even more iconic image of Death in Ingmar Bergman’s Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957), and there’s evidence to suggest that Bergman was, indeed, influenced by Lang’s creation. The use of shadow play is similar to techniques used by Dreyer, while the visual effects are a precursor to the kind used by Murnau in Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage (Faust, 1926). Luis Buñuel even cited Destiny as the reason he became a filmmaker, taken in by its moral conundrums and magic realism.
At its heart, there’s a palpable sense of melancholy to Destiny, a quality often attributed to Lang’s own wrestle with mortality after the recent death of his mother. Even among the magic and the spectacle, the humour and the sense of play, you can see Lang meditating on what death is, questioning how such equally powerful forces as love and death can coexist, and why the latter must inevitably conquer the former. In many ways, this idea of two unstoppable forces colliding with each other became the central thesis for Lang’s remarkable string of films that followed Destiny over the next decade, many of them his greatest achievements. With a gorgeous new 2K restoration, the future of Destiny is certainly assured, meaning that this wonderfully playful collection of tales can entertain for another century to come.
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Der müde Tod (Destiny, 1921 Germany 94 min)
Prod. Co: Decla-Bioscop AG Prod: Erich Pommer Dir: Fritz Lang Scr: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou Phot: Bruno Mondi, Erich Nitzschmann, Herrmann Saalfrank, Bruno Timm, Fritz Arno Wagner Ed: Fritz Lang Art Dir: Robert Herlth, Walter Röhrig, Hermann Warm
Cast: Lil Dagover, Walter Janssen, Bernhard Goetzke, Hans Sternberg, Karl Rückert, Max Adalbert