Thursday, 8 June 2017
Silent and deadly: "Destiny/Der Müde Tod"
What do we know of Fritz Lang's silent work? Metropolis, which has become the go-to title, in more or less constant circulation since its turn-of-the-millennium restoration; occasionally, the still tremendously exciting Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler will resurface from the underground in which it lingers. Beyond that, however, much has been lost, which makes Destiny/Der Müde Tod a valuable rediscovery: here is a new print, tinted as per Lang's original instruction, of the 1921 opus subtitled "a folk song in six verses". Despite rhyming title cards, the framework is actually that of a horror film - Lang's own Caligari or Nosferatu - about a village literally stalked by death. A mysterious stranger (the most upright Bernhard Goetze) shows up in a quiet berg, buys a plot of land adjacent to the cemetery, and begins sneaking the locals out of sight - for, as is evident from the German title, if not its generalised English translation, this sombre, cowled figure is the Grim Reaper himself, grown weary of his labours, heading out to something like pasture, yet keen to take a few more souls along with him.
Somewhere in its cosmology, there exists an inkling of Lang's later obsession with societies that corrupt themselves: we learn there was some debate among the village elders over the wisdom of allowing this outsider to purchase this plot, but "the money was too tempting". Yet the overall sweep is capital-R Romantic. This Reaper finds a worthy opponent in a young bride (Lil Dagover) who insists that love is stronger than death, and proceeds to tell three stories that might prove it, with the aim of sparing her swain. At which point, the film takes on a distinct Arabian Nights flavour - the first tale is set somewhere in the Middle East, with Metropolis's mad scientist Rudolf Klein-Rogge credited as "The Dervish" - but also an air of that keystone portmanteau Intolerance, albeit stripped of Griffith's lofty pretensions and longueurs.
The stop-start, patchwork format means it doesn't quite have the immediate narrative grip and thrust of this director's later projects: it's still inchoate Lang, trying on different genres, costumes, even title fonts for size, and - as with Griffith's Broken Blossoms, another potential influence - we now have to turn a forgiving eye to the Orientalism of the bride's third story. Still, certain images and ideas leap out at us, a century on from their first inscription: this Reaper presides over a chamber of candles that stand for the lives of men, waiting to burn or be snuffed out. And it's hard not to be struck and impressed by the sight of a relatively young filmmaker covering so many bases in the course of ninety minutes, already determining to push the boundaries of his art. His Death may be tired, but Lang himself was only just warming up.
Destiny/Der Müde Tod opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on July 17.