As technology improves and an increasing number of films are made, it is easy to have earlier films lost, embellished, and buried within history. Therefore, when the footage of a presumed lost film does survive, intact and is restored, it is important to consider what made it worth preserving in the first place. Fritz Lang’s 1921 film DESTINY (DER MÜDE TOD) solidifies Lang as a rarity in an already new industry. It serves as an example of a film that remains relevant nearly a century later. The tale’s simplicity is deepened by his technical mastery and unique form of storytelling, which hints at Lang’s future success as a filmmaker. It’s the rare type of film that clearly articulates one of the most complex principles that make up our humanity: Love and Death.
The film tells the story of a woman (Lil Dagover) who seeks to revive her fiancé, whom Death (Bernard Goetzke) has taken away from her. She is distraught and confronts Death for his misdeed. To her, death could not be equally as strong as love, for love must surely triumph. Death, who is personified as an old weary gentleman, disagrees, but he strikes a deal with the woman. He gives her three chances to revive her beloved. There are three suitors who are destined to die; they are all displaced throughout various periods in time. The woman is re-incarcerated as the suitors’ beloved—if she is to prevent the death of any one of them, Death will bring back her fiancé.
The interaction between Death and the woman sets the stage for a philosophical conundrum. We are taught from a very young age the importance of love and compassion. This is embedded into our humanity. However, death is also a part of our humanity. Yet, we are shielded from it and expected to keep it at arm’s length until a certain time, where we are expected to embrace it. The film’s query plays out our different experiences with death. Through these three suitors, we can witness and appreciate not only a well-crafted story, but also the associations that come with an authentic and relevant reality.
The first story tells the tale of a suitor in Arabia. Frank (Walter Janssen) is passionately in love with Zobeide (Lil Dagover), the Caliph’s (Edward Von WInterstein) sister. Amidst desperation and love a wild chase plays out, with fast-paced music, advanced fighting, and daring stunts all under an Arabian backdrop. The story exemplifies an engaging adventure, with the protagonist trying to hide from death in the hopes he is to be united and escape with his beloved.
The exoticism of this scene is perhaps what is most salient. Within the constraints of time and technology Lang creates a transcendent landscape of what can only be deemed an Arabian night. This tale actively showcases Lang’s ability to create a lavish scene through simple backdrops and clever framing. The landscape truly does provide a fanciful illustration for what Arabia could—and most likely did—look like through a German lens. After attending school, Lang travelled the world experiencing all it had to offer. He then later fought during World War I as part of the Austrian Army. As a burgeoning director and screenwriter, Lang illustrates what Arabia could look like with the embellishment of fiction and an adventure that sets the groundwork for the likes of Indiana Jones.
The second story demonstrates how death is often closer then it seems, and that one cannot fool or trick Death. Set in Italy, Monna Fiametta (Lil Dagover) is in love with Giovanfrancesco, yet she is engaged to Giorlamo (Rudolph Klein-Rogge). The music foreshadows a soulful sense of tragedy and suspense throughout. Giorlamo is played as a presumptions antagonist resigned to see Giovanfrancesco die in battle. Even though Fiametta is in love with him. Monna Fiametta tries to prevent her marriage by tricking Giorlamo, but in doing so ends up losing Giovanfrancesco.
Here we sense some impending misfortune. The tale is entrenched in Italian romanticism, the very nature of the plot inviting tragedy and hardships. Lang prevents the first real obstacle in the real world, where one cannot attain true happiness without directly sacrificing another’s. This is only further highlighted as the protagonist starts to lean towards selfishness in her plight against Death. She hopes to substitute another’s death in order to avoid the demise of her suitor. Which in turn is detrimental for those around her.
The final plight, the last suitor, and the woman’s last chance to resurrect her fiancé, takes place in China. With a more comedic tone, Lang orchestrates a tale of a wizard named A Hi (Paul Biensfeldt) and his two protégés—Tiao Tsien (Lil Dagover) and Liang (Walter Janssen)—trying to entertain the Emperor (Karl Huszar). The emperor is so taken by the wizard’s magic, as well as Tiao Tsien that he wishes to keep her. This results in a series of events where Tiao Tsien takes hold of A Hi’s magic and tries to force others to behave in the manner she chooses. Which much like the previous lights only results in devastation. Proving that one cannot control death.
This final tale brilliantly showcases one of Lang’s most defining characteristics, his technical creativity. The cinematography and visual effects demonstrated throughout are seamless and relatively advanced for the era. In 1921 the flying carpet was unheard of, and the transformation the wizard experiences were revolutionary. These effects contribute to the eerie quality to the film’s tone and atmosphere. Often used sparingly—yet effectively—Lang’s technical prowess is the most memorable feature and foreshadows his success as a master of film language.
Lang tailors these three tales in an expressionist masterpiece, one that takes a simple concept such as death and presents it in relation to our love and humanity. The actors and actresses are uniquely placed in circumstances that are distinctive but with enough commonality to serve a larger story and significance. Cinematography plays a clear role in enhancing and creating added dimensions to the tale. Overall the piece gives us much to consider, as well as several key moments to ponder and mull over in the wake of the aftermath. Truly memorable, even 95 years later.