DESTINY (Cert. PG) is the English title of the cinema re-release of Fritz Lang’s 1921 silent film Der müde Tod: appropriate for something giving serious consideration to whether the apparent arbitrariness of when and how we die has any deeper meaning.
The theme is explored through German folklore and allegory. A young couple (Walter Janssen and Lil Dagover) are shown deeply in love. The talk of the tavern where they are seated is of a newcomer to the village. The intertitles identify him as Death (Bernhard Goetzke), “the stranger who is always with us”. While the community leaders — including the priest (translated as “vicar” in the credits) — feast sumptuously at another table, the young man is literally carried off by Death.
Despairing of help from the Church, the woman seeks out an apothecary’s help. He mixes a hallucinogenic draught as she reads the Song of Songs (”For love is strong as death Passion is cruel as a grave”). The result is that she is enabled to confront Death, a character worn-out (Der müde Tod means The Weary Death) through witnessing people’s suffering.
Initially, he would appear powerless to influence God’s preordained plans for us. “Lives flare up and are extinguished by the hand of the Lord,” he says. But, after she slightly misquotes the scripture read at the apothecary’s, he offers the chance to defeat death in one of three exotic episodes.
The settings are Persia, Quattrocento Venice, and ancient China. The same three leading actors become the fateful subjects of each scenario, placing themselves (and us vicariously) at the heart of that eternal quest to comprehend the purpose of human existence.
The film bestows on us a cornucopia of pictorial, often Expressionist, compositions, including stop-motion effects, dissolves, superimpositions, richly hued tints, camera angles, and striking symbolism. Lang is asking, through its heroine, how we as humans can avert what seems the inevitable, an interest triggered by out-of-body experiences that he had had during a fever. Those morbid visions gave him an insight into the ecstasy felt by martyrs and saints embracing death.
Lang claimed that all his films, whether the Metropolis and M, made in Germany, or those such as his Ministry of Fear and The Big Heat, made in Hollywood, were about the importance of fighting destiny. This can be seen in the new restoration of his 1921 film. With allusions to the Great War’s slaughtered millions, we are reminded that this world doesn’t have to be random and lacking in meaning or love. Whatever sacrifices have been made along the way, death is one of God’s endless mercies, bringing to completion our own efforts towards a right true end.
Der müde Tod will later be released as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Series in a definitive Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition on 17 July 2017.