Silent movies are tough to find on Netflix, unless a person knows what to look for. Every once in a while, though, one will pop up, and for some reason, the decision-makers seem have a thing for Fritz Lang. 1921’s Destiny is the second of his movies I’ve seen on the streaming service, and after Metropolis, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see any more. But, like any good blogger, curiosity got the better of me. So, here we go, ladies and gentlemen…
The film opens with a guy (Bernhard Goetzke) in a black hat and a cape standing off to the side in a field. A stagecoach comes by with an old woman and a pair of lovers (Lil Dagover and Walter Jansenn), and the man hails it. The old woman gets out, and he climbs in. There’s clearly something off about this dude, because the young couple look at him fearfully.
Next we see a town, and a tavern called the Golden Unicorn, where the mayor (Hans Sternberg), the vicar (Karl Rückert), the notary (Max Adalbert), the schoolteacher (Erich Pabst), and the local doctor (Wilhelm Diegelmann) assemble every night to meet, eat and knock back a few. All they can talk about lately is the stranger who asked the local grave digger (Paul Rehkopf) the way into town. He also wants to know who owns the land next to the graveyard. When the stranger finds out the magistrate has it marked for a cemetery annex, he heads straight for the magistrate’s office and asks to buy it. Naturally, the magistrate wants to know why, and the stranger tells him he wants to plant a garden of flowers.
Yeah. Not even ten minutes in, it’s already painfully obvious who the stranger is and what he’s referring to when he says, “garden of flowers.” He’s Death, and he’s looking to fill the cemetery wtih fresh graves. Naturally, the town council isn’t sure what to think, but they agree to lease the cemetery to him for ninety-nine years in exchange for a handsome sum. They’re so delirious with joy that they don’t have the foggiest what they’ve really agreed to.
Death goes to the town square, where he leans against the wall and draws a cross with the Alpha and Omega symbols. Curious villagers creep up on him until he declares that everything they do is meaningless, and then they back away slowly. Now all the local higher-ups can talk about is the mysterious wall with no door in it. The stranger is really starting to freak them out.
Meanwhile, the young couple arrive at the Golden Unicorn, as does Death, of course. He sits down at the couple’s table, and they get as far away from him as possible. A nice older lady brings them a chalice and tells the couple it’s tradition for lovers to take their first drink at the Unicorn. Our pair does so happily, and when they put the chalice back down on the table, it turns into an hourglass. Creepy.
Even creepier, the girl steps out for a brief second, then comes back to find out her fiancee and the stranger gone. So she goes out to search for both of them. Naturally, she goes to the cemetery, then staggers over to the mysterious wall. There, to her horror, she sees ghostly people of all ages, shapes, sizes, and conditions pass by her, including her fiancee. She entreats them to let her follow, but she can’t and faints. The apothocary finds her, and takes her to his house.
While he’s making her a cup of tea, her eyes light on a phrase in Song of Solomon 8:6: Love is as strong as death. In a trance, she goes over to the apothocary’s shelf, opens a small dark bottle of elixir, and pours some into a glass of water. It might be poison, or a sleeping drug, but either way, the girl ends up back at the mysterious wall, where the hidden door is now revealed.
The girl walks up a long stairway to find Death looking back at her. He leads her into a room full of lit candles, and tells her that each flame going out is a person’s life ending according to the will of God. While he’s talking, one flame extinguishes, and a baby appears in his hands. He can see the baby’s mother weeping over her dead child, and then the baby disappears again.
Death isn’t an evil character. He laments that people hate him for doing what God has asked him to do, and he’s weary of seeing people in pain and suffering. The girl senses his sympathy, and plays the love-is-as-strong-as-death card: What would it take for her to restore her beloved to life? Death motions to three candles and asks if there is anything she can do to prevent their being snuffed out.
The girl finds she and her fiancee in three different settings, living three different lives, and she has to save the life of her beloved in all of them. In the first scenario, she’s the Turkish princess Zobeide, who’s in love with an infidel. In the second, she’s an Italian nobildonna, Monna Flametta, whose jealous fiancee (another guy, just to be clear) plots to have her lover murdered. In the third, she’s Tiao Tsien, an assistant to a Chinese magician, A Hi, who rescues her lover, Liang from a tower. There’s no way to fake success, as Death is always watching. Will she succeed? Will Death keep up his end of the deal? Only time will tell.
Destiny, known in German as Der Müde Tod, or The Tired Death, reminds me quite a bit of Ovid’s Orpheus and Eurydice. In fact, the premise is nearly identical, except for a few tweaks–Death isn’t as much of a major figure in Ovid’s work, and there are a lot more twists. There’s also role reversal, as the damsel saves her man instead of the other way around. The film is structured to be like a German folk song, with stanzas and verses, and meant to be emotionally intense. Death is also constant presence in traditional German literature. Amazingly enough, the film isn’t as much as a downer as it appears to be.
Also amazingly enough, Lang cowrote the screenplay with Thea von Harbou, who later wrote Metropolis, only there are vast differences between that film and Destiny. Destiny is a tighter story, it’s less chaotic, and it goes much lighter on the symbolism. It also doesn’t take a potentially divisive social message and misapplied Bible verses and hurl them like bricks. I had time to appreciate the stellar special effects and the great acting. Lil Dagover is the especial highlight, and she deserves it, because she’s versatile and sincere in her role as the girl. She’s ably matched by her costars, especially Bernard Goertzke, who plays Death with a quiet sadness. It’s almost as if Destiny and Metropolis were made by different people. It’s too bad the subtlety of the former was basically lost by the time the latter was made. I don’t know about anyone else, but I very much prefer Destiny. It’s a great story and a prime example of German expressionism.
All righty, everyone, thanks for reading, and see you on Thursday with another Origins post!