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Love and Death: The Romantic Sorrow of Fritz Lang’s ‘Destiny’

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Fritz Lang’s Destiny (Der müde Tod, 1921) is celebrating its 95th anniversary in a big way. A Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation restoration of the picture premiered at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, presented in a recolored version with a new score by Cornelius Schwehr, performed by the 70-member Berlin Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra, and a Kino Lorber Blu-ray was released in August, retaining the musical accompaniment and the gorgeous tinting and toning, as Lang originally intended. To anyone who has seen the film before these enhancements, the exhaustive efforts to preserve, restore and distribute this masterwork of silent German cinema are fully vindicated and most certainly welcome.

Subtitled “A German folk song in six verses,” Destiny is primarily a series of three vignettes, bookended by the more significant story of a young woman (played by Lil Dagover, star of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [1920], the first segment of Lang’s Spiders series [1919], and his 1919 film, Harakiri) who must capitulate to a personified Death’s (Bernhard Goetzke) demands in order to resurrect her recently abducted/departed fiancé (Walter Janssen). Within this frame, Dagover, Goetzke and Janssen reappear as new characters in a triptych of narratives playing out in three fantastically-rendered settings –apparently Baghdad, Venice, and China — though the specifics of the locations are negligible in lieu of a more generalized sense of someplace exotic no matter the historical or geographic accuracy. In these locales, Death challenges the young woman’s varying incarnations to save the life of a changing male counterpart, represented back in the “real world” as a fading candle. Should she succeed, her beau will be returned. In each of the segments — referred to as the first, second and third “light” — a familiar tale of lovers facing assorted obstacles is enacted, each, inevitably, ending in tragedy.

Before this trio of trials is initiated, however, the young man and woman first encounter the unidentified Death aboard a carriage in the idyllic countryside, a signal that pervading sorrow has seeped into peaceful tranquility and has, quite literally, confronted this loving couple. Death appears as a figure obviously not of the region, but he is also not instantly understood — by the other characters at least — as an explicitly menacing entity (as opposed to, for instance, Bengt Ekerot in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal [1957]). As portrayed by Goetzke, who would later star in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922) and the two-part Die Nibelungen (1924), his appearance here is somehow natural, casual and not otherworldly solely in appearance. Like the notion of an embodied death itself, the actual figure in Destiny is simply a part of life. Imposing and odd though he may be, he is not necessarily frightening, nor, especially as the film progresses, is he even disturbing.

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In a small town where Death first arrives, Lang introduces a quintet of “honorable dignitaries,” all of whom are singled out and presented as distinct physical types, previewing an almost Eisensteinian form of grotesque, cartoonish characterization, as would be seen in Strike! (1925), for example. Curiously, though, while Lang makes it a point to distinguish these men by their exaggerated peculiarities and their profession — as the Mayor, Reverend, Notary, Doctor and the Teacher — they are essentially of little consequence. What they do represent, however fleetingly, is the way this mysterious cloaked stranger is discussed and regarded. Death is, of course, universal (Lang’s own mother had just passed away before production), and this enigmatic gentleman has apparently been making his rounds. The subject of much conversation and speculation since his arrival, Death (or whoever the townsfolk think he is) shows immediate interest in a plot of land adjacent to the cemetery. Initially denied purchase by the governmental powers that be, money talks, even for Death, and he is able to attain the property, upon which he erects a massive wall with “neither door nor gate,” initiating the first real sense of the supernatural manifest on earth. Interestingly, and as a precursor to what becomes a surprisingly tender portrait of Death, part of his intention with the land is to grow a garden, to, in contrast with his very existence, bring life where there is none.

Once Death seizes her fiancé, the young woman seeks out a decrepit apothecary (Karl Platen), who provides her with a potion that transports her to Death’s abode and, subsequently, allows her to enter into his bargain (such a magic-science combination will serve more than one character well in Destiny). After ascending a tall narrow staircase, she arrives in a room adorned with pillaring candles, thin, fragile stand-ins for the equally delicate lives of men, women and children, their existence hanging in the balance in a brilliantly conceived analogy. Like a flickering flame, the wavering division between life and death appears capricious in Destiny, but as suggested by Death’s ruminations, such fatally precarious arrangements are not, in fact, arbitrary. There is someone (or something) in control, a being who must do the deed, who must witness the anguish of the dead and the suffering of those left behind, and must consequently endure the hatred that coincides with the lethal occupation. “It is a curse,” states Death, not for the first time nor the last eliciting considerable sympathy. A tormented figure (Der müde Tod literally translates as “weary death”), Death is simply “doing the Lord’s work.”

The words “Somewhere, someday” appear at the start of Destiny, as a fairy tale prompting and a suggestion of the film’s wide-ranging application. As the verses unfold, Lang, with a team of cinematographers, most notably the great Fritz Arno Wagner (Nosferatu [1922], Diary of a Lost Girl [1929], M [1931]) imbues in Destiny a steadily more haunting visual impression and a more ominous suggestion of omnipresent death. When Dagover’s young woman first roams outside Death’s looming fortress, she witnesses a parade of ghostly entities skulking through the countryside, eventually dissolving through the impenetrable wall. As a film released in the aftermath of the Great War, where German deaths were still fresh in the mind of the nation’s beleaguered citizenry, the assortment of deceased figures — spanning all ages, epochs and social strata — indicates that Death has been in service for all time and is not discriminatory in his reluctant assignments (the later image of him with a newly departed baby soberly stresses the point). “How near to death men often are without suspecting it at all,” comments one character. Like a song passed down through generations (it is a “folk song,” after all), this is a familiar tale, ageless in its relevance.

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Having explored the world of globe-trotting adventure with The Spiders, and primed to enter a modern urban milieu the next year with his first Mabuse film, Lang, with Destiny, exults in the period-piece details of the three-part midsection and its embroidered recreation. It’s like a giant step back in time before proceeding full speed ahead into the here and now. The final Asian episode, in particular, is where Lang’s penchant for embellishment shines the most, especially in its set pieces and attire, both built from enamored Orientalism (as evinced in the opening credit noting “The authentic Oriental artifacts and costumes were provided by the Heinrich Umlauff Museum, Hamburg,” this was an obvious point of pride for the director). This third sequence is also where Lang and his team of artists and craftsman — spearheaded by three of the most influential art directors in film history: Robert Herlth, Walter Röhrig, and Hermann Warm — incorporate several special effects sequences, including a hovering magic carpet, a floating scroll and an inventively designed and composed miniature army. But while there is a degree of authenticity to the regalia and ornamentation, Lang generally favors stylized artificiality over realism, no matter the setting; form and narrative function rise above factual basis. As Destiny’s editor, he also maintains a constant tempo throughout the film, though he does vary considerably the shape and size of the frame through masking devices, a way of highlighting and intensifying elements without moving the camera or disrupting spatial consistency. In all three stories, there are times when the set design bustles with hordes of extras and animals, and though the nighttime carnival scene in the “Second Light” shows capacity for torch-light vivacity, the brief sequence is moderated, Lang’s use of light and shadow emerging more concerned with exoticism than expressionism. In Destiny’s middle portions, Lang is far more interested in the surface than the psychological.

This is not the case, however, in the framing narrative, where Destiny is most poignant. Intertitle text about love wrestling with death and love being stronger than death indicate the combative contest underway, and indeed, this is a film in which there are multiple points of conflict, between worlds, goals, hopes and duties, the natural versus the supernatural, magic versus science, and the real versus the imaginary. With this larger existential bout of love vs. death, the challenge suggests potential for two possible outcomes, for each to hypothetically win over the other. But is this truly the case? Destiny leaves one to question Death’s motives. Has his proposition been a misleading temptation? Could he have ever really reversed the process of death? Maybe he’s just looking for company, seeking to identify with one of his tragic victims, or perhaps just hoping to give the illusion of opportunity? Death offers up the prospect of alternative choices and the potential for differing outcomes, but there is also the nagging sense that all has been written and death is inescapable. The time of day in Destiny is frequently called out, and the young woman is given something of a deadline in each of the stories, so much like the inevitability of passing seconds, minutes and hours, death will come for everyone — time is not on the side of the living. It may not be the literal translation, but in this regard, Destiny is a most apt title.

Fritz Lang wrote Destiny at age 30, working with frequent collaborator and soon-to-be lover Thea von Harbou (she was, at the time, married to Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who appears in Destiny as well as a host of other key Weimar era German features). Epic in scope and theme, the subject of Destiny is most heart-rending in its moments of intimacy. There is, of course, the tragic love story, but there is also the evolution of Death. Just as he elicits the sympathy of viewers, he, too, reveals compassion, tenderly escorting the young woman when her efforts to save her fiancé fail. “I shall take you to the man you love,” he says, leading to a resolution that, though death triumphs — two-fold — is somehow still romantic, even if it is only so in some spiritual netherworld. With its bitterly somber conflict between life and love and death and despair, Lang simultaneously proposes that love and death need not be opposing, but may be, instead, inextricably bonded, each transcending the other. In this way, the film can be somewhat optimistic (it is even, at times, somewhat comical, as when the young woman must find an individual whose time has not yet come but stands to lose little and seems to hit the jackpot at an infirmary). Wherever and however the journey takes place, Destiny arrives at its final satisfying destination as a poetic and deeply affecting film, an ethereal meditation from a now legendary filmmaker who was, despite the assuredness and ability demonstrated with this work, just at the start of his career.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State
University and writes for the publications Film International,
Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine,
Cut Print Film and Vague Visages.

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