Destiny (DER MÜDE TOD)
In what is already unarguably an eclectic and impressive body of work, Fritz Lang’s 1921 silent epic Destiny (or Der müde Tod as it is known in its native tongue) ranks as one of the legendary filmmaker’s stranger productions.
Written by his wife, Thea von Harbou, Destiny tells the story of a woman (played by Lil Dagover) who is visited by the black-cloaked, stone-faced figure of Death (Bernhard Goetzke). Peculiarly, Death isn’t interested in her soul, as it appears his mission to this earthly realm is to take the woman’s lover away from her instead. Ever the game player, Death proceeds to offer her three chances to get her love (played by Walter Janssen) back by tasking her with the challenge of saving the lives of three, seemingly doomed men throughout history.
The film, which is subtitled A German Folk Song in Six Verses, is therefore split into three distinctive narratives as our heroine takes on her labours. The first is in Persia, the second in fifteenth century Venice, whilst the third occurs in ancient China. These historical vignettes are some of the most wonderfully crafted, lavish sequences ever committed to silent era celluloid and seemingly defy the technology of the time with their flying horses and miniature armies. It’s a testament to Lang’s experimental ambitions and his commitment to expressionist filmmaking overall, though he doesn’t forget his actors and manages to draw out a stunning performance from Dagover which sells the emotional currency of the piece superbly. The use of lightning and Lang’s trickery with multiple exposures is the perfect visual adaptation of von Harbou’s Brothers Grimm-inspired, deeply imaginative script and ultimately this point the way forward for Lang’s more recognised landmark achievements in such films as Metropolis, Die Nibelungen, Spies and M. These films would prove to be Lang’s destiny, but it is arguably Destiny that is the filmmaker’s first real masterpiece.
Destiny (DER MÜDE TOD) is out on Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray from July 17th