For those of you who are unhappy in the workplace or out and out hate your job, you ain’t got nothing on the lead in 1921’s DESTINY, the movie that put Fritz Lang on the international map (now on Blu-Ray in a stunning new 2K restoration, courtesy of Kino Classics/Murnau Stiftung/MoMa/rsb/roc-berlin/Bertelsmann/Film Museum/2DF/arte/Deutschlandradio Kultur).
As intimated above, DESTINY was a smash hit worldwide, and it’s really easy to see why. This movie, a vast undertaking for Decla-Bioscop (with exquisite location filming in Potsdam and Brandenburg), has it all. Love, sex, violence, supernatural forces, gripping drama and opulent adventure – all perpetrated by one of cinema’s great masters, director Lang who, along with his cowriter (and cohabiter) Thea von Harbou, fashioned the screenplay, subtitled A German Folk Song in Six Verses.
The title itself is rather symbolic, as are the alternate monikers the movie received throughout its decades in release and re-release. It was also known as The Three Lights and, perhaps, most prominently as Der Mud Tod (translated as either The Tired Dead or Death is Tired, both applicable).
So what is DESTINY, you ask (in a thoroughly un-philosophical manner)? This highly stylized textbook example of German Expressionism brilliantly follows the travels and career of Death (as superbly personified by Bernhard Goetzke). The problem with Mr. D. is that he’s sick and tired of humans (“I’m weary seeing the sufferings of men”). What he’s especially weary of is their whining when he calls, their scheming to cheat him, the lies, the bribes, the total bullshit. He wants a vacation! Unfortunately, he’s so good at his job it looks like he’ll (ironically) never be able to rest in peace, like so many millions of his “clients.”
As he moves on to his latest mortal, the grim reaper is stunned to find his task rattled by a bold young woman, the soon-to-be-taken’s lover. The couple, as portrayed by Walter Janssen and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s great Lil Dagover, is to be a pair Death is definitely going to remember. The man’s death is sublimely common – a disappearance after the specter’s shadow swoops over the couple’s horse-drawn carriage. The woman refuses to accept her happiness cut short and is determined to track Death down and demand…well, a recount. Death, who resides in an (what else) Expressionistic castle (on land newly purchased from a greedy realtor), surrounded by a doorless, mammoth wall, is unapproachable. Or so it seems. The woman (throughout the movie the lovers are known only as the The Young Man and The Young Woman) sees the ghosts of recent victims enter and exit the stone barrier, including her significant other. This only underlines her goal. As we all know, walls really don’t work, and soon Death is forced to allow the daring lady entrance after she downs a dose of poison. Their verbal and spiritual sparring amongst a chamber of living candles is visually spectacular, laden with (then) state-of-the-art special effects and luminous (occasionally tinted) black-and-white photography (achieved by no less than five cinematic painters: Bruno Mondi, Erich Nitzschmann, Hermann Saalfrank, Bruno Timm and the masterful Fritz Arno Wagner).
Death, at last, offers the woman a deal. Stop at least one of three other women in history from losing their mates, and he will return her lover. The Young Woman readily agrees, and we are transported to three exotic locales from another time: Persia, Italy and China (all the couples are likewise enacted by Dagover and Janssen, with obligatory appearances by Goetzke). The Young Woman’s mantra, “Love is as strong as Death!” turns out to not be as simple and basic as she thought, putting her through both physical and emotional hell. This all culminates in a rather shattering climax of irony and suspense so endemic to the Langian world, and one that I will certainly not reveal to readers unfamiliar with this classic silent masterpiece. Suffice to say that it and the movie are unforgettable.
DESTINY moved The Movies into a techno-abstract upgrade that seemed to be occurring at a standard, rapid pace post-WWI, and usually emanating from Germany. No surprise that a barrage of Teutonic directors, writers, cameraman and stars were regularly imported over to Hollywood, where they helped elevate the ever-popular mass entertainment into an art form. Douglas Fairbanks was blown away by this movie, and snatched up the U.S. rights – not for exhibition, but to study the astounding SFX, which he planned to incorporate into his upcoming Thief of Bagdad. DESTINY’s destiny nevertheless was to have an innovative effect on global cinema, and one that lasted for nearly a half century. The Ingmar Bergman influence, of course, immediately comes to mind; however, it didn’t stop there. Luis Bunuel proclaimed, “When I saw DESTINY, I suddenly knew that I wanted to make movies.” Alfred Hitchcock hailed the pic as his all-time favorite motion picture.
That kind of elite cheering section naturally warrants an A-1 restoration, and Kino, in conjunction with the aforementioned plethora of famed companies, studios, archives and organizations, hasn’t scrimped on one pfennig. This 35MM complete 98-minute 2K version, containing the original tints, looks amazing. It sounds great, too, thanks to a newly composed score by Cornelius Schwehr, utilizing a 70-piece Berlin Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra (under the baton of Frank Strobel). Nifty extras include audio commentary by Tim Lucas, a glimpse of how the film was restored and more.
Perhaps the movie’s greatest irony is its initial reception in Lang’s native Germany. Critics were emphatically nonplussed by the allegorical epic. But the director and von Harbou held strong, and, when the picture later opened in France and, then, England, it was praised to the gills. For Lang, it was all part of the game: “If I don’t accept a bad critique, I can’t accept a good one, either,” he said shortly afterward.
The fact that, after centuries of failed male brutality, it is a woman who can prove a formidable foe of Death, and possibly its conqueror, is due to the input of von Harbou. If anyone personified the female warrior psyche it was the future (albeit briefly) Frau Lang. It was her contribution to their earlier 1919 triumph The Spiders that displayed the artist in full force: the most interesting character in that piece was the cunning, athletic Lio Sha, one of celluloid’s most remarkable villainesses. DESTINY is therefore, in spite of its religious tenets and basic good vs. evil overture, an extremely modern treatise on the flawed human condition that suggests its survival is only salvageable via defiant feminism. As such, it’s absolutely worth visiting. And often.
DESTINY. Black and white (with color tints). Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]. German intertitles w/optional English subtitles. 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino Classics/Murnau Stiftung/MoMa/rsb/roc-berlin/Bertelsmann/Film Museum/2DF/arte/Deutschlandradio Kultur). CAT # K20719. SRP: $29.95.