28 June 2009

Der Müde Tod (1921)

d. Fritz Lang / Germany / 114 mins.
Alt: "Destiny"



For all intents and purposes, Fritz Lang's career begins here, with 1921's Der Müde Tod, released in the U.K. as "Destiny." In the United States, it found itself with different English translations — "Between Two Worlds" and its literal translation, "The Weary Death" — but none has stuck quite as well as "Destiny." Looking back over Lang's entire career, it's not difficult to see why: whereas Lang's previous film, the adventure serial Die Spinnen, is breezy and fun, Der Müde Tod sets course for a career of fatalism and determinism, the impending doom (and potentially subsequent resignation) captured by the eventual understanding of the inescapable. The arch-rival of the protagonist in this film is the personification of Death, and although people have tried for thousands of years to cheat him, there has been headway only in prolonging the inevitable.

This is one of the earliest examples of great expressionistic German filmmaking, shy of masterpiece status (like many of the early ones) but enthralling nonetheless. F.W. Murnau cited it as an influence, particularly on The Last Laugh; no less than Alfred Hitchcock would count it among his all-time favorites, and Luis Buñuel noted its fantastical nature helped draw him into film. I've not heard any words on Ingmar Bergman's thoughts on it, but the influence seems too striking to be unavoidable, even if it's merely tangential.

The story of Der Müde Tod, co-written by Lang and Thea von Harbou, is the story of cycles, fantasy, and fable. While riding into a small town in what appears to be nineteenth-century Germany, a young woman (Lil Dagover) and a young man (Walter Janssen) encounter a mysterious man (Bernard Goetzke). His presence and purpose soon become quite evident when he, later revealed to be Death, abducts the young man into the afterlife — seen here as a large windowless, doorless stone wall that keeps the living out while the spirit of the dead pass through. The woman, determined to retrieve her fiance, manages to slip the bounds of the wall and is given a brief tour of the ephemeral backstage of life by Death. She beseeches him to let her have her love again, and he strikes a deal: she will have three chances, in different eras and locales, to save a man (always played by Janssen, with Goetzke lurching in the background) who is destined to die. If she can merely save one of these men, she will get her own fiance back.

Like the best silent cinema, the story is not simplistic for the sake of being purely simple. The moral and narrative stakes are always higher in silence — extreme cases of life and death, love and loss, etc. — which either can allow the story to synthesize quietly with the art or create a situation where the story overwhelms the technical elements. It is a testament to Lang's talent that this early in his career he was capable of doing the former and doing it well. Although he had been unable to direct The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari due to other obligations, he wisely hired that film's production team (Walter Röhrig, Walter Reimann, and Herrmann Warm) to help bring to life the fantasy world of Der Müde Tod (which is not nearly as surreal or geometric as Caligari's, and instead stays closer to embellished visions of ethnic nations) to life. The film features five primarily exotic locations: first, the world of nineteenth century Germany and the castle of Death; then, as the young woman attempts to save men in order to save her own fiance, she is transported to Persia, circa One Thousand and One Arabian Nights; the Renaissance courts of Italy; and a far eastern trip to ancient China.

The cumulative appeal is broad. Like the best of Lang's films, Der Müde Tod is a visual exploration of the space within the lens, which stands as a filmic metaphor for our own limits and boundaries in life. The acting is slightly overworked, but there is balance from Lang in maintaining our interest in both the characters and their story and the ornamentation of the sets and the haunting composition. The special effects hold up even ninety years later. They are used strategically and infrequently so as to dazzle: transformations, materializations, a flying carpet, a horse riding in the sky, a burning home, etc., all lend power and mystery to the design. The effects were trailblazing enough by Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., who delivered the greatest argument in favor of Der Müde Tod through his fear of it. He purchased the rights to its distribution in America so he could effectively keep it from the public and stash it in cinematic limbo while he and Raoul Walsh co-opted many of the special effects for The Thief of Bagdad, a rewarding movie in its own right but not as powerful as Lang's. It's difficult to be upset with Fairbanks, however; they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

4 comments:

FilmDr 01 July, 2009  

With all of the materializations, the personification of Death, and the tour of the afterlife, Der Mude Tod also sounds a bit like Orphee (1950). I wonder if Cocteau knew of this film?

T.S. 08 July, 2009  

Admittedly, I haven't seen Orphee, so perhaps I'm not the best to answer that question. Purely speculating, though, since Hitchcock and Buñuel were so familiar with it, I would think perhaps Cocteau was? Again, pure speculation.

Sam Juliano,  08 July, 2009  

"This is one of the earliest examples of great expressionistic German filmmaking, shy of masterpiece status (like many of the early ones) but enthralling nonetheless. F.W. Murnau cited it as an influence, particularly on The Last Laugh; no less than Alfred Hitchcock would count it among his all-time favorites, and Luis Buñuel noted its fantastical nature helped draw him into film. I've not heard any words on Ingmar Bergman's thoughts on it, but the influence seems too striking to be unavoidable, even if it's merely tangential."

Ha! Now there's a mouthful T.S.! And yes the influence can surely be seen on THE LAST LAUGH, which is one of the greatest German films in the history of the cinema.

"Like the best silent cinema, the story is not simplistic for the sake of being purely simple. The moral and narrative stakes are always higher in silence — extreme cases of life and death, love and loss, etc. — which either can allow the story to synthesize quietly with the art or create a situation where the story overwhelms the technical elements.."

Indeed, indeed. This is present in the greatest of silent films..Gance's LA ROUE comes to mind immediately.

"The cumulative appeal is broad. Like the best of Lang's films, Der Müde Tod is a visual exploration of the space within the lens, which stands as a filmic metaphor for our own limits and boundaries in life."

Beautiful observation T.S.!

Th emulti-locations of course were necessary for this fantasy to play itself out, what with the proposition that one life be saved in any of the three locations.

Wagner's work here is unsurpassed here. I am always reminded of FAUST here, and THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER for that matter, or th eepisode of Boris Karloff's THRILLER titled "The Devil's ticket," which narratively comes close to this Lang masterwork.

This review is just about or within a hair as great as your one on Griffith's BROKEN BLOSSOMS. You are on quite a roll.

T.S. 20 July, 2009  

Thanks for the great comments, Sam. I still need to check out Karloff's Thriller, which has been hanging out in my mind since our discussion of Alfred Hitchcock Presents!

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