Early & Silent Film

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Destiny / Der müde tod, Germany 1921.

Posted by keith1942 on June 15, 2015

Destiny duo

I saw this film some years ago at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield. On that occasion we had a 35mm print with added sound: at that point the only print available in the UK. It seems that this version is about 150 metres shorter than the original, And I did think that some shots, especially some overlapping dissolves, ran past a little too fast. However, the image quality was pretty good and the film had English title cards.

Filmed in 1921, this is an early example from the partnership of Lang and Thea von Harbou. Critical judgements on the works have often been distorted  by the knowledge that Lang left  Germany when the Nazis gained power but that von Harbou stayed and joined the party. This retrospective view overlooks that real skill with which von Harbou constructed her screenplays and the shared interests in expressionism, German gothic and a strong touch of German nationalism.

Destiny is certainly a fine example of von Harbou’s writing skills and of Lang’s skills in mise en scène, camera and editing. This is film is a beautiful exercise in chiaroscuro, with many a striking tableaux and the editing offers deft parallels and oppositions . The thematic aspects are familiar in Lang’s other works and bound together by suggestive motifs.

The basic plot finds a grim-looking figure (Bernhard Goetzke)  arriving in a small town and purchasing a plot of land alongside a cemetery. Among the deaths that follow is the fiancé of a young woman (Lil Dagover). Desperate in her love she attempts to win a reprieve from mortality. She becomes involved in three stories, each featuring an attempt to ward of death. Moreover in each she and the grim stranger appear in the guise of other characters They are set successively in a Sultan’s place, The Story of First Light; medieval Venice, The Story of the Second Light; and a rather imaginative palace of a Chinese Emperor, The Story of the Third Light. A final episode features fire, death and rescue, bringing the narrative to its end.

Lang uses chiaroscuro and the style already familiar in expressionist films. The gothic aspect of these is strongly emphasised. The film offers recurring symbols including both a clock and three candles burning down to their stumps.

Destiny trio

At one level the film offers the pleasures of the gothic, and an exploration between life and death. At another level the film struggles with the conflict between mortality and immortality, light and shadow, and authority and submission. The emphasis on time is a familiar one in Lang’s work as is the overarching hand of fate. Both get a very full exploration in this film.

I revisited my notes of  viewing this film in the company of a chapter on the film from Tom Gunning’s excellent The Films of Fritz Lang (bfi, 2000). This is a long, complex but extremely stimulating analysis. He writes at length on time, the machine and fate in this and other Lang films. He also brings out other aspects.

The sub-title for the chapter is Dearth and the Maiden, which would make an extremely good alternative title for the film. The women characters in Lang’s Weimar films are very interesting. Despite some critics preference for his Hollywood product, I do not think that the latter have the same intriguing treatment of women. Even M, where we encounter a male serial killer, offers both impressive and moving female characters.

The young woman in Destiny impresses one by the power of her love, her single-mindedness, her commitment and, most of all, her strength of character in the struggle with death. This receives emphasis from the weakness, indolence and apathy of most of the other characters in the film, including the men. A recurring response during the dramatic sequences of the film to a request for help / sacrifice is:

not a day, not an hour, not a breath.

Indeed, this young woman is the only character in the film to offer these.

Tom Gunning also made a number of comments about technique in the film. One that especially interested me was concerning ‘the look at the camera’. In my early studies in film this was usually identified as a sort of distancing device and one that mainstream films [as in Hollywood] avoided because it seemed to breach the invisible wall. I have always had a problem with this stance. it treats a particular shot in a uniform way: an expression of the idea that film  is a language. I am not convinced of this, or even that it is a set of languages as occurs across differing cultures. For a start we learn cinematic conventions in a vastly different way than language. And shots [like many techniques in film] have both denotative and connotative meanings, but frequently it is the connotative meaning that trumps the denotative. Film in the colloquial sense is not about communication but drama and values.

I usually sense whether a look to camera can be described as ‘diegetic’ on ‘non-diegetic’ but I would find it difficult to identify exactly the aspects that help me read in this way. Gunning argues that those in Destiny remain diegetic.

You will get the sense that Gunning’s chapter is an extremely detailed analysis and produces a reading of the film far more complex that just that of an entertaining gothic fantasy. In fact this could be applied to much of Lang’s output, both with von Harbou and later in Hollywood. His films work at the entertainment level but rarely stop there. And in my experience it is the more complex films that are also the more entertaining. This explains in one way why Lang occupies a place in the pantheon of filmmakers. His films offer pleasure but also lend themselves to analysis and discussion. Destiny is a good example of this.

 

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