Wednesday, June 08, 2016

cinema obscura: Fritz Lang's "Destiny"/"Der Müde Tud" (1921)

Scenes from Lang's "Destiny"/"Der Müde Tud": The Wall (above) and Lil Dagover and Bernhard Goetzke as the ingenue and death in disguise (below)

Master filmmaker Fritz Lang thrusts the viewer into an intense emotional whirlpool in his 1921 silent film, "Destiny" ("Der Müde Tud"), one of the lesser known titles in his canon of work but an achievement that I've always found compulsively watchable and utterly fascinating.

Its long inaccessibility, given that rep houses and a lot of campus film programs are sadly out of business, was blessedly only a temporary occurence now that the film is available on DVD and is slated for a Blu-ray release via Kino on August 30th.  

The dream-like tale of two lovers whose future together is dimmed when Death (Bernhard Goetzke) materializes and snatches the young man (Walter Janssen), "Destiny" is the kind of film that, on paper, can sound positively purple. The young woman (Lil Dagover) contemplates suicide when Death challenges her with a deal that she can hardly refuse: There's a boy and there are three candles, each representing a human life.

As each candle is extinguished, someone dies. But if one candle stays lighted, the boy will be spared and survive.

This main storyline gives way to three subplots - set in ancient Persia, Renaissance Venice and China - that are both wildly methaphorical and metaphysical as the woman frantically searches for someone to give up their life once the boy's is spared. The elderly, who are at death's doorstep, run from her. There is some alert, unexpected humor in this death-drenched fable, and the heroine confronts carefully-designed stumbling blocks, until she and her lover are reunited in a way that can only be described as supremely Lang-ian. Relax. No spoiler here.

I've always been struck by the methodical pace and overriding sense of calm that Lang brought to his very dark, moody fairy tale. The filmmaker kept things in check here, both his direction of the material and the performances of his cast.

The result is an impressively muted film.

Fritz Lang brilliantly deconstructs the notion of romantic filmmaking with "Der Müde Tud," which actually translates, tellingly, as "The Tired Death."

6 comments:

Jeremy said...

I saw this film at a showing at the AFI in Washington, D.C. about 30 years ago. It has haunted me ever since. I've sure missed being able to see it again. I had no idea of its recent availability on home entertainment. Thanks!

richard l. said...

One of my favorite early Lang films. I'm an obsessive-compulsive film viewer and I'm currently working my way through the films of Lang (up to 1930's now). "Destiny" ends on such a magical note.

Brian Lucas said...

I enjoy this film quite a lot, though I think the three stories get sidetracked in special effects and exoticism, whereas the main story is far more interesting to me with its Gothic visuals. The film reminds me, in structure and setting, of the much lighter (and shorter) Waxworks by Paul Leni, which is more obviously a work of German Expressionism.

joe baltake said...

Brian- I agree with you wholeheartedly about the visuals versus the storyline of "Der Müde Tud." But at least they aren't a distraction from the plot.

Vince Kowalski said...

I adore Lang! Both his silents and his (relatively) contemporary films, This one I somehow missed but will definitely check it out. Thanks.

Alex said...

Joe: I agree. This is an overlooked masterwork. Definitely a Cinema Obscura. It should be better known among Lang's canon. Hopefully, the upcoming Blu-ray will bring it the attention that it deserves.