At the beginning of 2015, I took my first serious dive into the films of the 1920s. So it hasn’t been that long since I first encountered Destiny (Der müde Tod) (1921), one of the earliest films of Fritz Lang’s career. Somewhat overshadowed by the director’s later silent epics Dr. Mabuse, Die Nibelungen and Metropolis, Destiny nevertheless holds a special place in cinema history thanks to its avowed influence on two men: Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel. Both were in their early twenties at the time and soon embarked on filmmaking careers of their own. Something about Lang’s creepy, romantic fairy tale helped clarify what they wanted to do with their lives. In other words, we’re talking about the Velvet Underground of movies here. But for some reason, I didn’t feel any particular pressure to have the kind of revelatory experience that Hitchcock or Buñuel evidently did — either in January 2015 or on my second viewing this week. I’ve always taken pride in a native sympathy toward, and patience with, silent cinema, but the brutal fact is that there are still only a couple dozen silent films that I really love. In the midst of a whirlwind survey of Keaton, von Stroheim, Valentino, Griffith and more, Destiny struck me as a good film but not something I could get worked up about one way or the other. A second viewing was called for to answer this question: if this movie doesn’t open my eyes to new cinematic possibilities, why is that?
Befitting a fairy tale, the premise is simple and strong: two lovers are separated, literally, by Death, personified by a mysterious traveler who comes into town and suggestively purchases land next to a cemetery. No scientific or moral explanation for the young man’s demise is offered. His allotted time had simply run out. When the young woman comes to plead for a miracle, Death shows her a room full of candles, of varying sizes, symbolizing the fate of every living person. Death contends that he is merely following God’s orders and that he doesn’t enjoy this any more than we do — the German title translates as Weary Death. As played by the granite-faced Bernhard Goetzke, with his long black cape, the figure is certainly more vampiric than angelic. Nevertheless, he offers the woman a chance; nay, three chances. She is to embark on a role-playing exercise, embodying the lovers of three men in different parts of the world who have likewise been slated for a rendezvous with eternity. If she can help any one of them escape his fate, then her own lover will be brought back to life.
And so, Destiny morphs from a German Expressionist horror film, complete with shuffling ghosts and grotesque local officials, to a multicultural epic in the vein of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Lang’s film might not be as grand or expansive as that cinematic doorstop, but it’s also more forceful and consistent in its denunciation of prejudice and cruelty. The three stories — set in an unspecified Muslim country, Italy and China — are essentially one story, in which the young man (Walter Janssen) and the young woman (Lil Dagover) are pulled apart for political or religious reasons. The local ruling authorities are the villains in each segment (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, a Lang regular, gives a pair of dastardly performances), and in two out of three the woman is ordered to marry a potentate instead of the commoner with whom she’s in love. The segments are presented in ascending order of sophistication with regards to the escape attempts: secret notes and ineffectual hiding, then subterfuge and poison, and finally out-and-out magic. But the unyielding hand of fate stretches over all the young woman’s efforts, and just as Janssen and Dagover play all three parts, so too does Goetzke appear as the unflappable executioner each time.
In short, all three candles are snuffed out. The young woman’s task was hopeless. Even so, Death offers yet another chance. If the woman can somehow persuade someone in town to trade their life for the man’s, then Death will be satisfied. In the most fairy-tale touch of all, the woman’s (admittedly, rather disturbing) request is met each time with the same lyrical refusal. Then, in a theatrical eleventh-hour twist, the woman rescues a baby from a burning building and decides to end her own life. This scene made me imagine a truly diabolical, O. Henry-style ending in which the woman gives up her life to be reunited with the man, only to have her selfless act finally prompt Death to resurrect the man, so that they merely switch places. Thankfully, perhaps, Lang’s film doesn’t go there. In a more thematically coherent gesture, the two lovers are indeed reunited in the afterlife. No tyrant, or fundamentalist, or jealous creep can touch them there.
Destiny is a lovely film with a strong emotional core and a handful of intelligently deployed special effects. That already sounds like qualified praise, doesn’t it? Sadly, the air of fatalism disengaged me from each of the mini-plots. Destiny arrived along with The Phantom Carriage and Nosferatu in the early twenties — films that highlight the ethereal and protean characteristics of the supernatural. But Destiny isn’t as chilling as the other two. I suppose when it comes down to it, a movie that can be described as “like Intolerance, but smaller and without the kinetic cross-cutting” faces an uphill battle with me. So what is it about Hitchcock’s and Buñuel’s careers that we can trace back here? A love of dark symbolism, perhaps — romantic fantasies with a cruel edge — general antagonism toward authority. German Expressionism had no little influence on both Surrealist film experiments and film noir, and who am I to say the touchstone should more rightly be Nosferatu rather than Destiny? This all merits further study, but in the mean time, I’m still on the fence about this film, so its rating will remain unchanged.