Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lil Dagover, Walter Janssen, Bernhard Goetzke, Hans Sternberg, Karl Rückert, Max Adalbert, Wilhelm Diegelmann, Rudolf Klein-Rogge
Written by: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
Directed by: Fritz Lang
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: German intertitles, with English subtitles
Running Time: 98
Date: 08/30/2016

Destiny (1921)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Games of Death

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Though I saw my first Fritz Lang movie many years ago, he continues to fascinate me. After escaping Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Lang had a long Hollywood career of disreputable crime films that were rarely taken seriously, yet all show signs of his singular personality and genius. Then, the end of his career came full circle with a return to the types of films he made during the first leg of his career. That first period, consisting of nine surviving films made between 1919 and 1933, is his richest in terms of big budgets and visual flourishes. And yet there's still many interesting nuggets that point the way toward who Lang might become.

Many of these early films were centered around crime and criminals, handling the themes of paranoia and persecution, being hunted and cornered. Cruel fate often has a hand in these stories. Oddly, the best known of these films is Metropolis, which is still discussed to this day in terms of its visual influence, but whose broad, theme-heavy storytelling is unlike anything else in Lang's work. Now, however, Destiny (1921), which has been painstakingly restored, offers a fascinating link between the big and small films, as well as a rewarding viewing experience in its own right.

Destiny — originally known as Der müde Tod, or "the weary death" — is a beautiful film, full of striking images and groundbreaking in-camera effects. Told in six "verses," it begins as a mysterious man, actually Death (Bernhard Goetzke) buys the land next to a cemetery and erects an enormous wall that seemingly has no gates or doorways through it. Then, two lovers, a woman (Lil Dagover, of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and a man (Walter Janssen), ride in a stagecoach. Death enters the coach and sits with the couple when they arrive at a tavern. The next thing the woman knows, the man is gone, disappeared into the void with Death. She wanders for a while, looking for him, and then decides to face Death.

He shows her a room full of long candlesticks, representing the lives of men. He explains that he is tired of the job of Death and offers her a deal. If she can save any one of three of the shorter candles from going out, their lives ending, then she can have her lover back. Thus begins our next three chapters. Unfortunately, this gimmick leads to a problem. We know that she will not save the first or second lives, since any one of the three lives will complete her deal. Nonetheless, we press on.

First, the woman appears in a Persian setting and must save the man, who is her illicit lover. The next segment takes place in Venice, where she is scheduled to marry a cruel man and longs instead to be with her, you guessed it, illicit lover. The third segment, set in China, is more interesting, especially since we don't yet know the outcome. The man and the woman are assistants to a wise magician (Paul Biensfeldt). The nasty emperor (Karl Huszar) invites them to perform at the palace on his birthday with the caveat that, if the show isn't good, the magician will be beheaded. The magic tricks are good, but the emperor decides he likes the girl and wants to keep her, leading to an escape attempt.

Finally, we return to the sixth segment, and to big themes of life and death, good and bad, love and kindness, knowing when to take action and knowing when to give up. But what's really interesting here is the sympathy that Lang generates with the character of Death. He's a tall, foreboding figure with a heavily lined face and a grimace, but he somehow seems sad, exhausted. He, too, appears in the stories, in various sideline parts, and we know he's rooting for the girl to beat him (he tells her so), but hope is in short supply. And what about his high wall, which apparently has a garden behind it, but seems to be a place that only the dead can roam?

Lang has focused other films on villains, but rarely identifying with them; mainly he wants to see how they behave, and what makes them tick (similarly to his innocent characters that are falsely accused). Perhaps this is a signal, looking toward the later work, or perhaps it's just an indication of an early, pre-persecution optimism in Lang. Amazingly, Destiny is an original work, co-written by Lang and his wife at the time, Thea von Harbou, though it feels like something taken from the classics. It's a big film of big themes, and yet also moments of sublime simplicity.

This astounding new restoration, which was culled from many sources, should give the film's reputation a boost. It was rather unlike anything else in its day, released the same year as Chaplin's The Kid and Victor Sjöström's The Phantom Carriage, and coming not long after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and D.W. Griffith's Way Down East, but getting a jump on Murnau's films as well as Douglas Fairbanks' The Thief of Bagdad by a good margin. The Blu-ray box cover includes a quote from Luis Bunuel, claiming that this film ignited his passion for filmmaking. It's hard to argue with that.

The home video release from Kino Lorber includes a 2016 trailer, used for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last July as well as other engagements. The intertitles are in the original German with optional English subtitles. The only other extra is a restoration comparison, as well as a glorious new score composed by Cornelius Schwehr and performed by the 70-member Berlin Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Frank Strobel. It's too bad that a commentary track wasn't offered, but perhaps the re-discovery of this film is too new to have found any scholars willing to discuss it. Hopefully that won't last long.

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