Generally remembered for his contributions to cinematic science fiction, crime, and horror, as well as film noir, with films like Metropolis (1927), M (1931), Ministry of Fear (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), and more, director Fritz Lang’s early silent film titles are often the most overlooked, despite the fact that they represent major innovations in filmmaking. One of the most important of these early works has recently been restored and released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber: though it is known to English-speaking audiences as Destiny (1921), Lang’s seminal silent film was originally titled Der müde Tod, meaning “The Weary Death” or “The Tired Death.” Devised as a series of stories about one young woman’s attempts to best Death and reclaim her lost love, this rich film is packed with unforgettable visuals, imaginative special effects, and presents a compelling blend of expressionism, themes found in early French adventure/crime serials, and Germanic folklore.
Kino Lorber have recently released a number of important early Lang titles on Blu-ray: everything from the restored, expanded edition of Metropolis (1927) — including one version with the mind-blowing, if unconventional electronic score from Italian composer Giorgio Moroder — to Die Nibelungen (1924), Spies (1928), and Woman in the Moon (1929). Alongside Destiny, the latter three of these are among Lang’s more ignored titles and represent some of his most breathtaking cinematic innovations in genres as widespread as fantasy, science fiction, crime, and romantic drama. This month, Destiny will also be joined by Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922) — the first in Lang’s highly influential, four-part Mabuse series, which stretched throughout his career — and the two-part adventure serial, The Spiders (1919-1920). Hopefully Kino will also manage to get ahold of restored prints of his other early titles like Harakiri (1919), but especially The Wandering Shadow (1920) and Four Around a Woman (1921), two of his least seen films.
After Death (prolific Lang regular Bernhard Goetzke) kidnaps her lover (Walter Janssen), a young woman (Lil Dagover of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) tries to kill herself when she reads that “Love is as strong as death.” Admitting he is weary and insisting that it’s not yet her time, Death grants her a chance to rescue the man she loves, assuming that she can save at least one out of three men doomed to die. First, she is sent to Persia during the Islamic Golden Age, then to Renaissance-era Venice, and finally, to China, where she must attempt to overcome insurmountable odds to prevent Death from claiming his prey…
Lang’s first major success — though it took awhile to pick up steam — is yet another collaboration between he and his then wife, writer Thea von Harbou. A key feature of many of their films together is a central love story, albeit one that ends ambiguously (such as Woman in the Moon), and their conclusion here is deliberately uncertain. The young woman refuses to trade the life of a child for her lover and, instead, sacrifices herself. Death takes pity on her — in his own inscrutable way — and reunites the two lovers in what seems to be the land of the dead. Somehow both hopeful and heartbreaking at the same time, this conclusion bucks the Hollywood insistence on a happy ending, while remaining nebulous enough that I wouldn’t quite call the parting mood utterly bleak, though it is far from the kind of saccharine sentimentality you might expect.
At its heart, Destiny is a fantasy film, a genre that Lang returned to repeatedly throughout his career, even though his fantasy-adventure efforts tend to be ignored in favor of Metropolis, M, or some of the English-language crime films he made later: titles like Der Nibelungen and The Spiders. These were certainly influenced by early serials, many of which were French, like Feuillade’s Fantômas (1913) and Les vampires (1915). Lang’s fixation on exotic cultures — Persian and Chinese, in this case — could easily be read as racist by modern audiences, but this sense of fascination with faraway cultures pervaded many of the early serials in general (and is even found in American films like the excellent Mask of Fu Manchu with Boris Karloff) and contributes both to the film’s immaculate detail and its sense of being set in some imaginary time and place, one which changes haphazardly throughout the centuries.
There are also strong folklore themes — the town at the opening of the film is said to exist outside of time or beyond time — and the film’s subtitle is “Ein Deutsches Volkslied in 6 Versen,” which translates to “A German Folk Story in 6 Verses.” In this case, the use of “Volkslied” is interesting, because the literal translation is not “folk story,” though this is certainly the loose meaning indicated in this title, but “folk song.” Lied is a term strongly associated with German Romanticism in the late eighteenth century — and initially implied a poem set to music — a literary tradition that also found its way into Destiny with its use of the Gothic and the fantastic. Two of the most striking sequences occur in a graveyard, owned by Death, and in the cathedral where an array of imposing candles are meant to correspond to human lives. The themes of candles and fire also find their way into von Harbou’s dialogue, where Death compares how passions flare and burn up to the burning and extinguishing of mortal life.
In addition to the loose themes of German Romantic writers like E.T.A. Hoffmann (who most English speakers will remember from the story “The Sandman” or Powell and Pressburger’s later Tales of Hoffmann), von Harbou and Lang also incorporated numerous fairytale elements. The “Folk Story in 6 Verses” aspect of the subtitle is a bit vague and it’s difficult to say exactly which are the six segments; my guess is that the prologue, where Death comes to a village “beyond time,” counts as the first, the framing story about the young lovers counts as the second, then there are the three standalone tales, and, finally, the conclusion with the two lovers. The regional folk stories collected by the Brothers Grimm are also a major influence, though the fairy tale themes are somewhat subtle. For example, Death builds a wall around his property in the town, the deed of which he essentially tricks out of the villagers, and all of the stories conclude at eleven o’clock, which is also the time that the young woman tries to kill herself.
Lang’s poetic use of candles corresponding to human lives can be found in the story “Godfather Death,” about a man who asks Death to be the godfather to his thirteenth child (instead of God or Satan), because death is the great equalizer between men. The personification of death can actually be found throughout several of the Grimm tales, including “Death’s Messengers” and “Death and the Goose Herder.” And while elements of German mythology appear more clearly in Lang’s Die Nibelungen, there is certainly some thematic crossover here as well in this film simply bursting with imagination, pathos, and an all-consuming sense of destiny.
Kino Lorber’s lovely print of Destiny is a brand new 2K restoration from the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, which I believe first premiered earlier this year in New York (at Film Forum), and is thus far the definitive way to see the film — it even has apparently accurate color grading, so the film is is slightly tinted rather than being explicitly black and white. And while the restoration is undoubtedly attractive, Destiny is the sort of film that is visually astounding regardless of print quality; between Lang’s use of lighting and his shot composition to his attention to detail and elaborate set pieces, it’s hard to take your eyes off this absolutely gorgeous work. It’s no wonder that it went on to influence everyone from Douglas Fairbanks and Luis Buñuel to Alfred Hitchcock. My only complaint is the lack of extras for such a historically important film; there is a wonderful new score from Cornelius Schwehr (performed by the Berlin Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra), an audio commentary from Tim Lucas, a featurette about the restoration, and a trailer, but I would love to have seen even a short documentary featuring German film historians like Thomas Elsaesser or Timothy Corrigan. Regardless, it is a worthwhile release and a must-see film from one of cinema’s most important talents.