Review – DESTINY (“Der müde Tod,” Fritz Lang, 1921, Germany)

Destiny posterDestiny (1921) is one of those early films in which reality and fairy-tale appear to blend in a most naturalistic way. There is a sense of timeless in the film’s notion of Death as a being roaming the earth on the same dimension as the mere mortals whose lives he claims. This is also why the concept could have been abused, had it not been dealt with in a film directed by Fritz Lang and written by his wife and collaborator Thea von Harbou.

At this time, Lang was still deemed a promising young director and did not have the type of reputation as the master filmmaker who would flee fascist Germany sixteen years later for the United States, where he helped found the film noir movement. Yet, as Destiny shows, he was already very eager to push the limits of the young new art form.

The story is that of a young lady (Lil Dagover), who pleads with Death (Bernhard Goetze) to bring her young lover (Walter Janssen) back to life. As unlikely as it may seem, Death makes a deal with her: if she can save one of these lives with love, he will return her lover to the living. Thus, she sets off on a dreamlike quest that will take to the Middle East, to China, and to Venice where she will bear witness to three doomed romances. It is also worth mentioning that she doesn’t only travel through space; she also travels through time, which is an aspect that adds a phenomenological layer to the inevitability of death.

So, Lang and von Harbou pit passionate love against the inevitability of death. In Destiny, Death is an implacable figure who has recently bought a plot of land, which he has turned into a walled garden for his captured souls. This personification led many critics of the time to proliferate the concept of film as philosophy. This personification of Death also suits the spirit of German Expressionism. Despite this, the film remains quite earthly and naturalistic. The sets, majestic as they are, present none of the abstractions of the sets of such films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), or Lang’s later Metropolis (1927). Even the most pictorial sets, such as the candle room, in which Dagover’s character speaks to Goetze’s Death, is fabulously dramatic, and at the same time, relatively simple.

The episodic structure of the film is the only thing that Lang and von Harbou stumble upon. Much like Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), which follows a similar three episode structure, not all the episodes of Destiny are equal in quality or substance: the Venice episode is obviously the weaker and least creative; the episode set in the Chinese Empire, especially due to its ingenious special effects (the magic carpet one of this sequence would be used in Douglas Fairbank’s vehicle The Thief of Baghdad, directed in 1924 by Raoul Walsh), is the most exciting one; the Middle Eastern episode falls somewhere in between them.

However, what remains admirable, is that despite its heavy, gloomy and dark concept, Destiny is very open to a mix of tones, from the adventurous to the humorous. Its sense of humour is perhaps the most startling of all, though it makes sense, as it spirals out of the underlying irony of the film’s narrative: death is inevitable, and our heroine’s true mission is not to save her doomed lover; it is a journey through the trauma of death and her final acceptance of it. – ★★★★

DER MÜDE TOD | 1921, Germany | Fantasy | Directed by – Fritz Lang / Produced by – Erich Pommer / Written by – Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang / Cinematography by –
Fritz Arno Wagner, Erich Nitzschmann, Hermann Saalfrank / Edited by – Fritz Lang / Starring – Lil Dagover, Walter Janssen, Bernhard Goetzke, Rudolf Klein-Rogge | Running time: 99 mins.

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