Death doesn’t take a holiday in this, the granddaddy of movies about the woeful duties of the Grim Reaper. Fritz Lang’s heavy-duty Expressionist fable is as German as they get — a morbid folk tale with an emotionally powerful finish.
1921 / B&W / 1:33 flat / 98 min. / Street Date August 30, 2016 / Der müde Tod / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Lil Dagover, Walter Janssen, Bernhard Goetzke, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Georg John.
Cinematography Bruno Mondi, Erich Nitzschmann, Herrmann Saalfrank, Bruno Timm, Fritz Arno Wagner
Film Editor Fritz Lang
Written by Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
Produced by Erich Pommer
Directed by Fritz Lang
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari takes the prize for the most influential work of early German Expressionism, but coming in a close second is the film in which Fritz Lang first got his act (completely) together, 1921’s Destiny (Der müde Tod). A wholly cinematic creation that marshals the camera tricks of Mélìes to illustrate a morbid fantasy myth about the world beyond the grave, it reportedly inspired both Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock to become filmmakers. Although the theme has been in place ever since Orpheus went to the underworld to retrieve Eurydice, Destiny is for all practical purposes the touchstone that launched the entire cinematic field of Film Blanc, wherein mortals find themselves suspended in one way or another between this life and a quaint conceptualization of the afterlife. Substitute the boatman at the river Charon for one of the quaint ghosts in DIcken’s A Christmas Carol, leave out the satire and keep the creepy stuff in Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom, and you’ve got Lang and von Harbou’s heavy-duty tale of love and doom… and more doom.
The film is actually a mini-omnibus, with the main characters taking on four different but parallel roles. While stopping at an inn, young lovers (Lil Dagover, Walter Janssen) are separated for a just moment, and the young man is claimed by Death (Bernhard Goetzke Dr. Mabuse The Gambler). The strange man had come to town, bought a cemetery and built around it a massive wall with no opening. The Young Woman sees her love among a group of ghostly souls that walk through the wall, apparently on their way to the afterlife. The strength of her love encourages Death, who is tired of his work, to break the rules. She’s admitted to a chamber where candles represent the lives of every human on Earth; a short candle indicates that the end for that person is near. Death can’t simply return her beloved, but allows her to relive three stories in different exotic time periods, where a woman must fight for the life of her love. She eventually is offered a terrible bargain — her man can live again, if she can find someone to take his place. Her only aid comes from a line in the Song of Solomon: ‘Love is as Strong as Death’.
I can see where Buñuel and Hitchcock were mesmerized by Destiny, as its most powerful image has shown up in my dreams as well. A giant wall of solid stone suddenly opens up to offer passage into a realm where humans are not meant to go. Fritz Lang’s command of screen architecture makes it not just a door, but a narrow vertical slit at least twenty feet high. The view is limited to one unchanging, oneiric angle; a brightly lit staircase within takes the Young Woman up and out of our sight. It’s like a reverse womb at the other end of life; its vaulted top has a slight church-y feel. The image may have influenced Walt Disney’s Fantasia. In the final scene, Disney’s slowly moving camera traverses a narrow corridor in a grove of tall trees. The ‘end of the tunnel’ toward heaven forms an identical tall slot with a vaulted top; beyond is paradise.
If you really want an image to become fixed in the mind of the viewer, it must be as simple as a logo. Many years passed between viewings of Destiny, but I remembered exactly what that magic doorway looked like. Of course, I must have embellished the film in my dreams, because I also remember wide, down-angle views of Death’s garden surrounded by a wall, and a full-blown transition effect that shows the wall opening up so the Young Woman can enter. In the actual film, there’s just a cut. It must be an example of the ‘dreaming King Kong being transported to New York’ syndrome, where vivid movies are mentally augmented in our dreams.
Fritz Lang referred to Viennese songs that described Death as a weary but sympathetic figure. Lotte Eisner mentioned a Hans Christian Andersen story about a mother that must endure a Deathwatch by a literal figure of Death, who waits until she nods off to snatch away her sickly child. Instead of candles, ‘wilting’ lives are represented by little flowers, with heartbeats that grow steadily weaker. A similar Grimm fairy tale is apparently the original source for the poetic image of the candles.
The grim story of a woman in love negotiating with the implacable Death is lightened by the three sidebar stories, that Death apparently presents as opportunities for The Young Woman to save her man. Even though she takes the lead role in each, their purpose seems to be to help her accept the immutability of Fate.
The three stories are clear opportunities for Fritz Lang to try different styles on for size. One is an Arabian Night’s fantasy, a second plays out in Renaissance Venice and a third in an Orientalism-skewed ancient China. The tone varies from mysterious to comic, and every opportunity is taken for extravagant theatrical and visual effects. Trained architect Lang has a field day coming up with fanciful designs. Special effects use giant props, double exposures and fancy glass reflections. He even uses stop-motion animation to make a piece of paper stand up and bow to the Emperor. The Arabian Nights sequence apparently so impressed Douglas Fairbanks that he told William Cameron Menzies to consult it while designing the silent The Thief of Bagdad.
The Chinese sequence is almost unique in Lang for its sense of humor, something the director was not at all known for. With kooky ideas perhaps stolen from The Mikado (East is East in Orientalism fantasy) the equivalent lovers in the China tale kiss like ornamental dolls. A clever magician offers one miracle after another without satisfying the greedy emperor, who is ready to chop off heads for the slightest reason. The three stories present have scores of impressive sets, some seen only for a few seconds. It’s really an epic production.
It’s the framing story that really counts. Even in the heaviest of later Films Blanc, the recurring flaw is that the ‘absolutely immutable’ laws of Heaven and Earth yield far too easily to the petty emotional problems of the leading players. I complained about this in the thematically awful (sorry Mr. Matheson) What Dreams May Come. It does give one pause after we see, in fantasy after fantasy, ‘special’ people receive exceptional privileges denied ordinary folk. Even the delightful Defending Your Life stumbles a bit at the end, when Albert Brooks is allowed to switch Universal Studios-style tram cars, cheating the supposedly infallible rules of reincarnation.
Destiny exacts an ultimate price for love that is much more in keeping with the real world, no matter how romantic one’s viewpoint might be. Lang’s Death is seen to claim a baby, leaving a black-clad mother to mourn; this is the Human Condition. Any end-run around that reality would render the story inert. This refusal to cheat makes Lang and Harbou’s conclusion play as an honest tearjerker, even today. The Young Woman is given a chance to cheat and her virtue is rewarded on a higher plane. The connection with the German ‘spiritual myth’ becomes clear, as The Young Woman’s romantic sacrifice becomes an exalted martyrdom, linking her to the heroines of Lang’s Die Niebelungen and Woman in the Moon. Lang gives his later You Only Live Once a similar Germanic under-theme of souls naturally linked, like two frogs in a pond. When the outlaw lovers of that film meet their end, their noble walk to the great beyond is a fantastic visual nearly identical to the one seen in Destiny.
The Kino Classics Blu-ray of Destiny (Der müde Tod) is a new 2K restoration by the F.W. Murnau Stiftung. It doesn’t appear to be any longer than the David Shepard-produced Image disc from 2003, but new inter-titles assure us that more film archives were tapped to obtain better quality material. Just the same, the restoration can’t be ranked with some of the top efforts that used digital technology to stabilize shots and smooth out splices. The 95 year-old show plays very well.
In addition to improved quality throughout, producer Anke Wilkening restores the original German artwork titles, which affect different looks for the different stories. The faux-Arabic type style is clever, while the faux-Chinese now looks rather cheesy in a way it surely didn’t in 1921. Removable English subs translate these beautiful original titles.
A new promo for the film is included, along with a curious Murnau Stiftung featurette that gives us an unenlightening (to me) comparison of the new tinting, against non-tinted scenes. It may be there to explain the reasons why certain tints were chosen — the box text says the tinting was simulated, not taken from a surviving print. Cornelius Schwehr’s full music score is performed by the 70-piece Berlin Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Frank Strobel. It adds greatly to the film’s impact.
A big draw is Tim Lucas’s commentary, an imaginative and eclectic look at the film that offers plenty of facts on the picture and fascinating info on the future careers of minor cast members. Especially interesting are Lucas’s many comparisons to later fantastic cinema, tracing themes and images through the years. Opinions will vary on which are relevant, and I am eager to note that the circular doors in one corridor of the Chinese Emperor’s palace also made me think of the alien chamber in a certain Mario Bava science fiction film. I wrote my review before auditing the commentary (so as to not simply repeat Tim’s observations) and I have to say that he’s nailed just about every conceivable thematic connection to another movie: a couple of mine feel a little bit subjective-shaky. But has he seen Roberto Gavaldon’s amazing film Macario? It’s practically a remake of Destiny adjusted for themes from the Mexican Day of the Dead. It’s macabre and also wickedly funny. Author B. Traven clearly saw Lang’s movie before he left Germany, for the hall of candles becomes a giant cave (filmed by Gabriel Figueroa) that expands greatly on Lang’s visuals. [Note: the previous sentence will disappear immediately if the Lucas track does discuss Macario, and I nodded off and missed it or something.]
Tim’s insights on the macabre theme are well worth hearing, and so are his explanations of the effects techniques used in some scenes. A couple of those are a little shaky. I’m fairly convinced that no illusions are forced-perspective tricks, because I see no foreground miniatures used and few conventional double exposures. When anything in this film is double-exposed, the lack of pin-registered camera technology produces pronounced weave between the images, as when the miniature army on the magic carpet jitters and dances in the frame, just as does most of the superimposed lettering for various gags. Lucas would seem to be spot-on when he fingers glass reflections enabling simple superimpositions like the dancing heads. But I believe that sets aren’t being enlarged with glass mattes or foreground miniatures, because the lenses and slow film stocks wouldn’t allow for the deep focus needed, even in broad daylight. When Tim mentions night-for-night scenes using painted light and shadows, I’m intrigued — that would seem an extension of the painted scenery in something like Caligari, done more realistically. Old accounts of how things are done are often questionable — Lotte Eisner quoted a letter from Fritz Lang, in which he praises his cameraman for making the bucket brigade in the final fire scene look like night, even though it was shot in daylight. In the film itself, it’s not as convincing as he claims.
Lotte Eisner’s Fritz Lang book was the source for some of my information above, and Tim appears to quote from her Destiny chapter as well.
8.09.16: a note from commentator Tim Lucas, with some corrections to the review:
Hi, Glenn – Thanks for the kind words about my DESTINY commentary. It was my first silent film commentary and a tad out of my comfort zone, but a rewarding assignment.
One thing you said, however, requires a response. You wrote, “I’m fairly convinced that no illusions are forced-perspective tricks, because I see no foreground miniatures used and few conventional double exposures. ” I’m not certain, but I think I referred to forced-perspective only for the occasion when the Emperor is shown crossing the bridge, which showed flat intermediaries and painted backdrops in the distance, much closer to the bridge than they actually appeared. And, working from memory, I think a fake tree was foregrounded to establish a misleading measure of distance between the foreground and the bridge – how else to describe this but “forced perspective”? I have no confirmation other than what I saw with my own eyes, but I don’t see how these decorations in the distance could have been incorporated otherwise.
I’m indebted to Bret Wood, my disc producer and a filmmaker in his own right, for the explanation of painting those sets “night for night,” which I found revelatory and startling – and consistent with what appeared onscreen. I credited him for the insight and he edited out my acknowledgement.
I naturally referred to Eisner’s LANG book but didn’t go near Lang’s comments about the fire sequence as I agree they are suspect – either due to bad memory, the greater difficulty in those days of turning to a reference print, or legend making. I was talking about something else at that point, anyway. Cheers, Tim / VW
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Destiny (Der müde Tod) Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Commentary with TIme Lucas, tinting restoration comparison, new promo
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 3, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson