Destiny (Der Mude Tod) 1921

Director: Fritz Lang

"For love is strong as death,
Passion is cruel as the grave;

It blazes up like fire,
Fiercer than any flame."

It inspired the careers of two great directors, and was removed from circulation in the USA by Douglas Fairbanks for fear it should overshadow his own work. Fritz Lang's influential first masterpiece is an adult fable which finds two young lovers in a struggle for survival that spans three continents and many centuries. Can their desire overcome the story's inevitable conclusion? 

“Some place, some time” - a nameless village where a young man and woman fall in love and plan to marry, and where a mysterious stranger plants a garden beside the graveyard and surrounds it with an insurmountable wall bearing neither doors nor windows. At the Golden Unicorn Inn, the two lovers drink from a bridal cup while the stranger looks on. The young woman is briefly distracted and the stranger spirits her paramour away. As night falls, she arrives at the vast stone wall and sees a procession of spirits passing through it. Only then does she know that the stranger is Death, and realises what has become of her lover.

Out, brief candle: Lil Dagover visits Death
(Bernhard Goetzke) in search of an old flame...  
A verse from the Song of Solomon (“For Love is stronger than Death...”) inspires her to enter Death's domain. Inside is a hall filled with countless candles. “Here you see the lives of men”, he tells her. “They flicker and burn for a time – then flicker out when God decides so.” He takes pity on the girl and shows her three candles whose light is almost extinguished, promising to return her fiance if she can save just one of the three lives they represent.

The first is in Persia, where she strives to protect her fugitive lover from the wrath of her brother, the Caliph; the second, in Renaissance Venice, where the man she truly loves is double-crossed by her despised betrothed; the third, in ancient China, where she is the ward of a court magician forced to take her lover on the run or become the consort of the Emperor.

The lovers take a magic carpet ride with
A Hi (Paul Beinsfeldt)
She fails to fulfil her task, and the three flames flicker and die. But Death has one more boon to grant her: if she can find someone who will freely surrender their own life before the stroke of midnight, her lover will be spared...

The film that began life as The Weary Death suffered from a strange loss of identity that rendered its title more abstract the further it travelled from its German homeland. In France and Spain, it became The Three Lights and crossed the English Channel under two more assumed names, Between Two Worlds and Destiny. The latter of these was adopted on a semi-permanent basis for the English-speaking territories (not counting a few appearances as Beyond The Wall and The Light Within) after it finally washed up on America's shores. Such practices were commonplace until well into the 1940s, and the kind of abstract title that saddled many an epic of the silent era (think Intolerance, Civilisation, Mockery, Conscience, etc. etc.) was particularly useful for hard-to-classify 'art' films like Der Műde Tod. Marketing men without a convenient genre label to attach to a film could thereby avoid having to attempt to explain to prospective film-goers what it was actually about. 

Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen steal kisses
in the Caliph's  palace
What it's actually about is the eternal battle between Love and Death, which, you could argue, most of the great stories are about – certainly the great horror stories, anyway. But Der Műde Tod is no horror but a fable for grown-ups, unconnected to a specific time or place, one that deals in archetypes rather than specifics. Above all a love story, (“the stuff fairy tales are made of the world over”, as Carlos Clarens wrote), it's far removed from the gritty crime dramas that Lang would make in America. All this uncharacteristic romanticism is usually blamed on Lang's uncredited co-writer Thea Von Harbou, who received similar criticism for some of the more naively sentimental parts of MetropolisBut Von Harbou only provided the polish for Der Műde Tod, which is also all about Fritz Lang, in both its conception and its execution.
It's a story inspired by Lang's childhood dream. In the grip of a fever, he imagined a benevolent stranger in a wide-brimmed hat coming to take him away from his tearful mother to a place of rest, and was only prevented from leaving by the “helping hands” that restrained him. The image stuck with him, and fit perfectly with the verse from the biblical Song of Solomon you see at the top of this page. Lang later insisted that all of his films were concerned in some way with an individual's rebellion against Fate: “the struggle of a primarily good human being against accepted social injustice”, a theme he never made more explicit than he did here. 

Der Műde Tod's timing was pertinent on a personal and professional level. Lang's story of a solemn Death growing weary of his duties couldn't help but be influenced by the devastation of WWI, which he'd experienced for himself fighting on the Russian front, and the death of his beloved mother just a few months earlier. Professionally, he'd recently completed two-part crime thriller The Spiders for Decla-Bioscop while relations with his former employer Joe May were falling apart. Decla were impressed enough by The Spiders to entrust him with a generous budget and shooting schedule for Der Műde Tod, paving the way for the epic features he'd go on to produce after the studio was absorbed by the UFA conglomerate later in 1921. 

Lil Dagover enters Death's domain

Lang's cast was assembled from a kind of floating repertory company that he'd use repeatedly during the 1920s. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari's Lil Dagover and Genuine's Moorish manservant Lewis Brody he'd worked with before, in The Spiders and The Indian Tomb respectively. Georg John, who'd previously taken on Death's mantle himself for Hilde Warren, would later help to destroy the machines in Metropolis and put the finger on Peter Lorre in M, reprising his Der Műde Tod role as a beggar. 

Rudolf Kleine-Rogge would become Lang's favourite villain, playing the evil Dr Mabuse and Metropolis's Rotwang even after Mrs Kleine-Rogge, aka Thea von Harbou, left him to become Mrs Fritz Lang in 1922. But most impressive of all is future nemesis of Dr Mabuse (Inspector Wenk) and ally of Siegfried (Volker von Alzey) Bernhard Goetzke, as Death. Goetzke possesses the melancholy features of an Easter Island statue, which perfectly describe a figure who has been carrying out his thankless task for centuries, lending his role the kind of gravity that normally only planets can muster. 

Der Műde Tod is also about space, in the sense of the great distances implied by Death's journey, or the impassable breach between the realms of the living and the dead. Goetzke's character is never threatening, but he is quite literally larger than life, only at home in his cavernous hall of candles or tracing patterns in the dirt before the vast expanse of wall that surrounds his 'garden'. His mere presence in the mundane world causes discomfort for the other characters. There's no sense of danger, it's just as though there isn't enough room for the great burden he has carried through all of space and time. By contrast, the two young lovers never seem to be more than an arm's length apart, and generate a similar kind of tension whenever they are physically separated. 

The Caliph (Eduard von Winterstein) plans a
nasty surprise for his sister (Lil Dagover)
Lang's architectural training carries this off. He makes the studio sets (co-designed by two-thirds of the team responsible for Caligari) come alive, giving each of the four settings its own distinct character. The walls and bridges, enormous staircases and vaulted corridors all help to suggest the enormity of Lil Dagover's mission to save her loved one's soul. But it's not all about spectacle. When the lovers are together, the camera often mirrors their intimacy by moving in close, the two of them filling the screen as though the rest of the world doesn't matter. 

When Der Műde Tod opened in Berlin in November 1921, it received a chilly reception from critics who derided it's old-fashioned Romanticism and only gathered the respect it deserved after it had travelled abroad. The French loved it, and in Spain it became a favourite of director-to-be Luis Bunuel. Another admirer was Douglas Fairbanks, who delayed the film's U.S.A. release in order to keep it off the market while he unravelled the secrets of its special effects for his own Thief of Bagdad. It finally surfaced through Artclass Pictures in 1924, by which time the Germans had offered a favourable re-appraisal. Legend has it that the film also made a strong impression on a young title-card designer at Islington film studios named Alfred Hitchcock, and gave him the notion that he might one day try his hand at directing.

End Credits:
Lil Dagover (The Young Woman / Zobeide / Monna Fiametta / Tiao Tsien), Walter Janssen (The Young Man / The Frank / Giovanfrancesco / Liang), Bernhard Goetzke (Death / El Mot / Emperor's Archer), Rudolf Klein-Rogge (The Dervish / Girolamo), with
Germany: Hans Sternberg (The Mayor), Carl Ruckert (The Reverend), Max Adalbert (The Notary), Wilhelm Diegelmann (The Doctor), Erich Pabst (The Teacher), Karl Platen (The Apothecary), Hermann Pischa (The Tailor), Paul Rehkopf (The Grave-Digger), Max Pfeiffer (The Night-Watchman), Georg John (The Beggar), Lydia Potechina (The Landlady), Grete Berger (The Mother)
Persia: Eduard von Winterstein (The Caliph), Erika Unruh (Anesha), Rudolf Klein-Rogge (The Dervish)
Venice: Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Girolamo) Lothar Mutel (Messenger), Edgar Pauly (Friend), Lina Paulsen (Nurse), Lewis Brody (Moor)
China: Karl Huszar (The Emperor), Paul Beinsfeldt (A Hi), Max Adalbert (The Chancellor), Paul Neumann (Executioner).
Screenplay; Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, Camera; Erich Nitzschmann, Hermann Saalfrank and Fritz Arno Wagner, Art Direction; Walter Rohrig (German episode), Hermann Warm (Persian and Venetian episodesand Robert Herlth (Chinese episode), Lighting; Robert Hegewald, Oriental artefacts and costumes from the Heinrich Umlaff Museum, Hamburg.
Decla-Bioscop, Germany
Running time 99 mins.


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