Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Lang's elegant expressionist imagery provides continuity and Dagover brings soul to her four characters, making them distinct yet connected through their passion."

Say the name Fritz Lang and the average person will think first of Metropolis. Lang made 46 films over the course of his career but only a handful are still enjoyed today, partly due to a shortage of well preserved prints. Destiny (better known to many by its German title Der Müde Tod, which translates as Weary Death) has been digitally restored using fragments of several different prints, with its intertitles taken from another and its colour tints from yet another. It's accompanied by a newly composed orchestral score by Cornelius Schwehr which captures the mood of the period perfectly. The result is an auditory and visual delight.

Far from the dry art film some viewers might expect, Destiny is one of Lang's most accessible works, structured around traditional folklore with a strong narrative arc. Bernhard Goetzke is the (German) title character, his height and gauntness combining to make him a sinister figure even though he eschews cowls and scythes. When he takes up residence in a small town where local councillors are all too willing to take his gold, the high wall around his property (which adjoins the graveyard) soon arouses suspicion, but he's so polite and sure of himself that nobody knows what to do about it. Only a young woman (Lil Dagover) lingers long enough to discover his secret. He was the last person seen with her missing fiancé, whom she will do anything to save.

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Moved by the young woman's passionate entreaties and tired of being hated for carrying out, as he explains it, the will of God, Death offers her a bargain. In his chamber, three candles are guttering close to extinction. Each represents a life about to be snuffed out. The young woman must travel, Quantum Leap style, into three different bodies. If she can save a single one of the endangered lives, her love will be restored to her.

In the popular tradition of the period, each of these tales has a distinct exotic setting, communicated through elaborate sets and costumes (and some unfortunate yellowface, though Lang does employ a black actor in one role long before it had occurred to Hollywood to do so). If you find the Sütterlin intertitles difficult to penetrate (the subtitles will be welcomed even by fluent German speakers), wait until you see them presented in pseudo-Arabic style. Lang's elegant expressionist imagery provides continuity and Dagover brings soul to her four characters, making them distinct yet connected through their passion. Each story packs in a lot of plot and, though there's a sense of doom throughout, keeps us rooting for the heroine to succeed.

The other element that makes this film stand out and explains its importance in cinematic history (influencing the likes of Luis Buñuel) is Lang's use of what were then cutting edge special effects. The appearance of ghostly bodies passing through solid objects must have astonished audiences in 1921 and there's nothing shoddy about it today. The miniaturisation of soldiers and a horse similarly retains its power because Lang creates an atmosphere around it that lets us share his characters' sense of awe. Each special effect fits neatly into the fairytale narrative; no image here is wasted but all contribute to a seamless whole.

Very little of Lang's early work remains available to watch in this condition. Destiny is a real treat. Watch it, and see if it can inspire you as it did the likes of Alfred Hitchcock.

Reviewed on: 02 Jun 2017
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A young woman pleads with Death for the life of her beloved, and is presented with a challenge.
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Director: Fritz Lang

Writer: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou

Starring: Lil Dagover, Walter Janssen, Bernhard Goetzke, Hans Sternberg, Karl Rückert, Max Adalbert, Wilhelm Diegelmann, Erich Pabst, Karl Platen, Hermann Picha, Paul Rehkopf, Max Pfeiffer, Georg John, Lydia Potechina, Grete Berger

Year: 1921

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: Germany


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