Conceived by writer and director Fritz Lang shortly after his mother’s death, 1921’s Destiny or Der müde Tod: ein deutsches volkslied in 6 versen (which translates as Weary Death: A German Folk Story in Six Verses) is his personal contemplation of death and mortality. Of course it also came just years after the end of WW1 and these two events would have clearly affected the film. It begins with the tale of a mysterious man (it’s no spoiler to reveal he is Death) arriving at a small town and making a deal with the community’s leaders to lease a plot of land next to the cemetery. Here he builds a huge wall around the land which seemingly has no gate or door.
A young couple engaged to be married are passing through. Death literally takes a seat at the same tavern table as them, and when she is distracted, he whisks away her beloved. The devastated young woman manages to find her way through the wall to Death in a great hall filled with candles that represent the passing of lives, to beg for her fiancé’s life convinced as she is that her love is stronger than death itself. Death, who must do what God instructs but is weary of the misery his task brings, makes a deal with her. His work will soon bring three more flickering candles to an end. If she can save even one of these from their destiny, Death will give her lover back to her. Three other verses of doomed romance follow, set in the Middle East, Italy and China.
This is the type of film you could use as an example of the ambition and sophistication that silent movies could attempt, though Lang’s direction is fairly flat here, relying more on the grandeur of the sets and costumes and giving the actors space to inhabit their roles. His concentration on the concept pays off, the tale he weaves with writing partner (and future wife) Thea von Harbou one that comments on grief, the immutability of death and would allow for deeper analysis on the collective post-conflict German psyche for those inclined.
The third lovers' story attempts some comic relief to bring brevity to a heavy tale but more often skirts (as was very possible for the time) racist stereotype, but ultimately this cinematic fairy tale folds bold imagery and universal themes into a still-remarkable whole. Restored by the Murnau Foundation it’s in comparatively great shape for a near-100 year old film. It remains an important early achievement for Lang and an oddly hopeful meditation on the nature of love and loss.
DER MÜDE TOD (DESTINY) (1921) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: FRITZ LANG / STARRING: LIL DAGOVER, WALTER JANSSEN, BERNHARD GOETZKE / RELEASE DATE: 17TH JULY