This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series
Movie Review – Destiny (1921)
Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921) can easily be counted among the most influential films of all time. It inspired both Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Bunuel to enter filmmaking, both of whom would make important contributions to the horror genre, and one cannot ignore its clear influence on Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant The Seventh Seal (1957).
Set in the early nineteenth century, Destiny is a dark fantasy. The story follows a young woman who’s fiancé has been taken by Death and is provided a chance to save him – she will have three opportunities to save a life and if she can save but one, her lover will be released. This provides a frame story and three vignettes which take place in fantastical time periods, namely an Arabian Nights-like Persia, the Renaissance, and ancient China, with the inter-titles changing with each setting. The girl, her amorous man, and Death play roles in each, the former two always as star-crossed lovers.
The film is richly imaginative and, for the most part, very well written, providing a fairytale contemplation on the inevitability of death. At one point a character remarks, as if in summary, “How close people often are to death, without a premonition. They believe eternity is theirs – and don’t even survive the roses they play with.” And yet we battle against it. Even those characters who profess to be weary of life and wish an end to it, when confronted with the opportunity to do so, run screaming to preserve their last remaining breaths.
The set designs, too, are stunning and a touch whimsical. Death is depicted by Bernhard Goetzke, whose tall, gaunt figure is perfect for the role. Death is wary of his labor but is stark and unrelenting in the performance of his duty. At one point we see him snuff out a candle of life only to realize it was that of a child. S.S. Prawer wrote in 1980 of one effective component about which I fully agree:
“One film above all others has been able to show convincingly a supernatural enclave, a realm of otherworldly terror and awe inserted into our familiar world. The film which Fritz Lang called Der müde Tod [meaning Tired Death] and which in English is more generally known as Destiny features one of the most haunting sets in the history of cinema: a Palace of Death whose huge sombre wall and mysterious Hall of Lights has only to be seen once to be seared for ever into our memory. Except for Bernhard Goetzke’s quietly impressive performance as Death, however, nothing in the rest of the work lives up to the visual terrors and delights of this grand architectural conception” (Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, pg. 77)
The young heroine is played by Lil Dagover, and her character is determined and fearless, seeking to save the man for a welcomed departure from traditional storytelling. She is challenged in moral ways as well, particularly in one wonderful scene involving her, Death, and a baby in a burning hospital. Will she sacrifice the infant to Death in exchange for her lover?
Only one sequence has not aged well, that being the one set in ancient China. The film changes tone here to one of comical farce and the depiction of Asians is about as cringe-worthy to modern viewers as Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi is in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Had Lang decided to keep the dark tone throughout the whole movie it would have elevated this otherwise darkly compelling tale into a more effectively haunting experience.
The film was poorly received in Germany upon its release. Critics accused it of not being ‘German’ enough. However, it was met with great enthusiasm in other countries. Douglas Fairbanks bought the American rights and delayed its release so he could study and copy the effects of the Persian sequence for his 1924 Thief of Baghdad.
Fritz Lang, born in Vienna in 1890, ran away from home at the age of 21, dissatisfied with the career path his wealthy father had chosen for him, to study art in Paris and Munich. In WWI he quickly rose in rank through distinguished bravery, being wounded four times and temporarily blinded. It was during his yearlong hospitalization in Vienna in 1916 that he began to write and sell many of his stories and screenplays.
In 1919 he married Lisa Rosenthal and a year later began collaborating with female screenwriter Thea von Harbou, with whom he wrote Destiny. He also began an affair with von Harbou, and one night Rosenthal walked in on the two making love on their couch. Soon police were called to the house and found Rosenthal’s body in the bathtub with a bullet hole between her breasts. The gun used was Lang’s revolver. Producer Erich Pommer and cameraman Karl Freund were called to the apartment to support Lang, and the director used his power to cover up his wife’s supposed suicide. For his part, Freund suspected Lang of murdering Rosenthal. In 1922 Lang and von Harbou were married. (This account is taken from Steve Haberman’s Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film.)
Whatever his guilt, Lang would of course go on to make history and become the most powerful director in Weimar Republic cinema. In addition to making Metropolis (1927), he also would make the masterful M (1931), his first “talkie,” starring Peter Lorre, considered the first serial killer movie and one I cannot recommend highly enough. It was Lang’s personal favorite. As the Nazis rose to power he knew it was time to leave. Von Harbou had developed Nazi sympathies and, even though he was raised Catholic, his Jewish heritage would make him a target. He immigrated to America and would continue making films into the 1960s, though none had the impact that his Weimar Republic era films had.
Lil Dagover, Destiny’s star, had appeared in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) the year before and would go on to a long career, sticking to German films after the advent of “talkies.” Though she remained apolitical, she was known to be a favorite actress of Hitler and dined with him on occasion, though after the war she would appear in anti-Nazi films.
Destiny is undeniably imaginative and always interesting. It’s easy to see why this film inspired so many young filmmakers.