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

The film that inspired may of cinema’s greatest auteurs returns to the big screen. This eye-popping restoration of Fritz Lang’s Destiny (Dur müd Tod), set to a newly composed orchestral score by Cornelius Schwehr was unveiled, to no little fanfare, at Berlinale 2016. The Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation and its partners spent more than a year restoring the original colours and intertitles to a film that, since its 1921 heyday, had faded and degraded almost beyond recognition. Now jollied along by the 70-strong Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin, its key horrors and delights - an owl in the moonlight, a midget presiding over a cockfight, a secret lover buried alive - are all the more searing. These indelible images, still startling almost a century after they were shot, made a special impression on Alfred Hitchcock, on François Truffaut, on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and on Luis Buñuel, who drew heavily on Lang’s early masterpiece for Un Chien Andalou. Drawing on folklore, Lang and his screenwriting partner Thea von Harbou, fashion a portrait of Weary Death, to use the film’s original German title.
- Tara Brady, The Irish Times, 8 June 2017.

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.

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