Der müde Tod

 (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1921) 98 minutes


Director: Fritz Lang
Producer: Erich Pommer
Screenplay: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
Cinematography: Bruno Mondi, Erich Nitzschmann,
  Herrmann Saalfrank, Bruno Timm, Fritz Arno Wagner
Editor: Fritz Lang
Music: Cornelius Schwehr (new score)
Lil Dagover (Young Woman)
Walter Janssen (Young Man)
Bernhard Goetzke (Death)
Hans Sternberg (Mayor)
Karl Rückert (Reverend)
Max Adalbert (Notary)
Wilhelm Diegelmann (Doctor)

Reviews and notes

2016 (restored version) Berlin

Called Fritz Lang’s first great movie, even by him, Destiny (1921) displays a fluency of visual expression that marks silent-era masterpieces to come as well as the primitive devices cinema is about to leave behind. Episodic in structure, Destiny is a woman’s quest to retrieve her beloved back from Death, a quest that takes her from a German small village “that time forgot” even further back in time, first to the City of Believers during Ramadan in some fictional Baghdad, then to Renaissance Venice during Carnival, and finally the imperial court in ancient China, in what are basically chases through a series of elaborately rendered set pieces. While each epoch is distinct, they are linked by a thematic architecture: archways, pillars, walls and stairs reduced to simple iconic forms in a fusion of Gothic, Eastern and Modern influences, forging an optimistic harmony among geographies, time periods, peoples and even beliefs. Despite its retrograde notions of the exotic, the film is full of fancy and wonder, danger and excitement — a fairy tale, albeit of the Grimm variety, come to life for grownups.
- Shari Kizirian, Fandor.

Fritz Lang has explained that in the years of depression following the 1914-18 war, he and many of his film-maker contemporaries "made a fetish of tragedy" as a reaction against the sunnier excesses of pre-war Romanticism. Unlike most of the Max Reinhardt disciples, Lang did not turn to Expressionism as his primary idiom, and yet Der müde Tod (his first critical success) characterises the prevailing mood so well that it seems today like a source film for 'the haunted screen'.

Most immediately striking is the film's exceptional range: apart from allowing itself the luxury of four parallel but otherwise dissimilar stories, with a different team determining the design for each, it takes a calculated delight in frequent switches of style from naturalism to melodramatic stylisation or broad comedy, adding gleeful trick effects, social satire and comic business throughout. The result is surprisingly cohesive, partly because of the modest strength of the framing melodrama, but mainly because of the beautiful consistency of Lang's ability to relate actors to settings; the dynamics of space applied in the film, however hyperbolic (Death's wall) or extravagant (the palace cellars in Baghdad) the sets, make the static camera more a boon than a limitation.

Of course, certain of the film's qualities were generic even in 1921: the assumption that fate is a concrete force at work had been a commonplace of German Romantic literature; the theme of dark forces undermining bourgeois stability (also from literature) is shared with numerous films, among them Nosferatu and Caligari; and the exoticism of the stories behind the three candles derives from the 'pulp' adventure cycle, to which Lang himself contributed Die Spinnen.

But the elaborate special effects, which come especially thick and fast in the Chinese tale, were virtuoso inventions, widely influential in Hollywood as well as Germany. And such Lang/von Harbou idiosyncrasies as the blend of German fatalism with vague Catholic mysticism, which blooms full in Metropolis, here finds its first tentative definition in the setting for Death's domain, a vaulted, cathedral-like hall thronged with burning candles, each representing a human soul.

Undoubtedly, though, the film's central importance lay in its sheer profusion of incident, its capacity for assimilating a detail like the characterisation of the town councillors as avaricious, drunken oafs without deviating from the main course of the narrative.
- Tony Rayns, Monthly Film Bullein, February 1974.

Restored by Anke Wilkening on behalf of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, this definitive presentation of Destiny preserves the original German intertitles and simulates the historic color tinting and toning of its initial release. Accompanying the film is a newly-composed score by Cornelius Schwehr as a commissioned composition by ZDF/ARTE performed by the 70-member Berlin Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Frank Strobel.
- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver, 27 August 2016.

Back to screening list

Home Page | Membership