Destiny — or more to the point, Der Mude Tod (literally The Weary Death) — was the film that brought the great German filmmaker Fritz Lang worldwide acclaim. It’s also said to be the movie that inspired Luis Bunuel to take an interest in filmmaking. And it was clearly a major influence on the play and film Death Takes a Holiday and Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal, while its Arabian Nights-like segment had undeniable impact on the Douglas Fairbanks version of The Thief of Baghdad.
Beyond that, the film is one of the earliest examples of German Expressionist filmmaking (as such, it’s also still a bit mired in the mostly-immobile-camera realm), a pioneering work in special effects, and an early instance of the multistory film. That’s quite an impressive list of achievements for a 1921 movie that’s all too rarely revived these days.
And it’s hard to understand why this striking — and strikingly beautiful — silent epic isn’t better known than it is. Not only is it important for the works it helped spawn, but it’s amazing filmmaking in its own right. The story line follows a young couple — played by Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen — who are on their honeymoon when Death (Bernhard Goetzke) claims the young man. Finding an entrance through a mysterious wall that leads to Death’s realm, the girl climbs the stairs to meet Death, who shows her a fantastic, candle-filled room. Each candle, he explains, is a person’s life and each flame is allowed to burn or be extinguished by the will of God.
Death is weary of taking life, and he offers the woman the opportunity to reclaim her lost husband if she can change the outcome of any one of three scenarios. These stories — and her inability to cheat fate — form the bulk of the film, though the final outcome is predicated on a more immediate story that takes place in her own time and place. She is offered the chance to buy his life if she can find someone who will willingly take his place.
Lang staged it all with consummate skill and artistry — and a depth of thought unusual in so early a film. The nailed-down camera is the film’s only real drawback, and even this problem is generally mitigated by the scope of the film and the beauty of the images. Unabashedly romantic and poetic, Destiny is one of the greatest of all early films, and ought to be seen by any student of film.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of Destiny on Sunday, July 3 at 2 p.m., in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to Lake Point Landing entrance and park in lot at left.)]