It’s estimated there were 525,000 war widows in Germany the year before Fritz Lang made Destiny (Der müde Tod) in 1921. In each of those households there was an empty place at the dinner table, just as there were hundreds of thousands of empty places in the homes of parents, siblings, and lovers. When Lil Dagover, draped in a Persian cat and cradling a dachshund in her arms, enters the dining room of a tavern early in the film and notices the vacant spot where her fiancé was just moments before, audiences of the time would have felt their own pang of loss. Destiny is about a young woman trying to reverse that loss, to negate the void that a reluctant Death has created. It’s a film of visual mastery brimming with fantasy, anchored by stunning sets and peppered with whimsical humor, which provides some relief but also knows loss cannot really be cancelled. It is also Lang’s first truly great movie.
He’d already demonstrated his skill as a director, notably with the exciting two-part adventure film The Spiders (Die Spinnen), clearly influenced by the detective series of Louis Feuillade, and Four Around the Woman (Vier um die Frau, a.k.a. Kämpfende Herzen), the movie he made just before Destiny. Both show stylistic flourishes that signal a master in the making. However, Four Around the Woman’s plot, written in collaboration with soon-to-be wife Thea von Harbou, is disjointed (in the surviving incomplete print) and doesn’t have much of an emotional impact. The same can’t be said for Destiny, in which Lang first tackled a theme he’d return to again and again: the inexorability of Fate.
Pioneering film critic (and Lang confidante) Lotte Eisner provocatively wrote in her now classic 1952 study of German cinema, The Haunted Screen, that “the German is obsessed by the phantom of destruction and, in his intense fear of death, exhausts himself in seeking means of escaping Destiny.” While such a broad statement is debatable, Lang seemed to be preoccupied with this phantom of destruction throughout his career, even before 1921. At the age of twenty-seven, in 1917, he wrote the script for Hilde Warren and Death (Hilde Warren und der Tod), directed by Joe May, which features a heroine visited by the Grim Reaper. At the time, Europe was aflame with the First World War, and Lang was hardly alone in turning his thoughts toward death. Yet he later also admitted that he fell under the kind of Romantic spell of death not uncommon in the artistically disposed: “Young people engaged in the cultural fields, myself among them, made a fetish of tragedy, expressing open rebellion against the old answers and outworn forms, swinging from naïve nineteenth-century sweetness and light to the opposite extreme of pessimism for its own sake.”
Is Destiny a pessimistic work? That depends on your point of view, but it still offers great comfort. Love is not stronger than death, as the young woman in the film initially hopes, but like the passage she reads in the Song of Solomon, “love is as strong as death.” Reuniting with a loved one can be possible, though not in this world. And while Death, when first introduced, is a forbidding figure (played to eerie perfection by Bernhard Goetzke), he’s tired of his role: “Believe me, my office is hard! It is a curse!” he tells the young woman and, indeed, the film’s German title translates as “Weary Death.” (Could Alberto Casella have seen Destiny before writing his play Death Takes a Holiday three years later?)
Lang and von Harbou conceived of the film in chapters spanning time and place yet anchored in a traditional, if mythic, Teutonic context: the subtitle is “a German folksong in six verses” (although conservative critics of the time complained the film wasn’t German enough). While structurally indebted to Griffith’s Intolerance and Murnau’s Satanas, the movie’s style and theme reflect the influence of German Romanticism, with occasional nods to Expressionism in terms of lighting and certain elements of the art direction. The sets were a collaborative effort by the best production designers of the Weimar era: Walter Röhrig (Caligari, Faust), Hermann Warm (The Spiders, Caligari), and Robert Herlth (Faust, The Last Laugh), and their fantastical creations are one of Destiny’s delights.
There’s the forbidding, unbroken wall enclosing Death’s realm, its irregular rock-face like petrified dinosaur skin; the Orientalist vision of the Caliph’s City of Believers, Arabian Nights in miniature; a simplified, cruel Renaissance Venice whose empty spaces create a sensation of agoraphobic danger; and the delightful whimsy of the China section, full of stylized curlicues and exaggerated natural forms. And then there are the special effects, from ghostly apparitions passing through Death’s door-less wall to the flying carpet said to have inspired Douglas Fairbanks for Thief of Bagdad. Much remarked upon was the animated Chinese scroll that apparently Lang himself meticulously shifted on a black velvet wall eight hundred times in order to make it seem alive (the film was then rewound in the camera, to create the multiple-exposure effect).
It took three years to get the film released in the U.S., where it was retitled Between Worlds and cut down—exactly how much is unclear, since the trade papers of the time list it variously as 6,940 feet and 6,400 feet, while Variety placed it at sixty-nine minutes (the original release length was approximately 7,568 feet). Oddly, the English intertitles changed a key element of the storyline, making Dagover’s character into an egotistical young woman whose lover is killed in each episode because of her selfishness: a trait precisely opposite to how Lang and von Harbou conceived her. Despite such a spectacularly misguided move, and the undoubtedly injudicious trimming, the film was not solely panned by the critics, as many later commentators claim. Leading critic and philosopher Benjamin De Casseres declared in Motion Picture Magazine, “It is one of the greatest pictures ever put on the screen. It kept me ‘outside of myself’ for ninety minutes by its instant and overwhelming appeal to my imagination, my sense of beauty, my instinct for the weird, and my love for pictorial beauty and fine characterizations on the screen.” Unfortunately, the public didn’t agree, and New York’s Capitol Theater reported its worst week of the year during the film’s run.
Lang’s follow-up, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler) had a broader impact, but among budding filmmakers, Destiny left a profound mark. Hitchcock told Truffaut that it was an early influence, and Buñuel specifically singled it out in his memoirs: “When I saw Destiny, I suddenly knew that I too wanted to make movies … Something about this film spoke to something deep in me; it clarified my life and my vision of the world.” Now that it’s been lovingly restored, with the best surviving elements from six different archives and approximating the tints used in the period, the film’s striking visuals are clearer than they’ve been in many decades. Equally enhanced is the emotional power, particularly at the beginning and the end, when Lang and von Harbou’s tale is stripped of its allegory and what remains is the story of a bereft young woman who challenges Death in a race against the clock to be with her loved one again.
Presented at SFSFF 2016 with live music by the Stephen Horne Ensemble (Stephen Horne, Frank Bockius, Guenter Buchwald, and Brian Collins)