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Sunday, 30 January 2011

Der Mude Tod (Destiny) - 1921

Well, another silent film review:
This time of a film by the master director Fritz Lang whom I hold is very high esteem, he is mostly known for the extraordinary science fiction epic Metropolis (1927) and his chilling murder mystery M (1931).
I believe he is widely recognised for the part he played in the Expressionist movement as well. This film, "Der Mude Tod" AKA "The Weary Death" AKA "Destiny" is one of the highlights of this movement, along with such films as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu and Faust.

These expressionist films were, in my opinion, a great step forward for Cinema, they easily transcended the action-adventure and heroic fantasy type films that were popular at the time (Lang even directed some himself) and in a way can be called some of the first "art films".

They often deal with themes such as Death (often in physical manifestations), Love (often in it's purest form), Fate and Insanity.
One must remember that this was released at the height of the Expressionist Movement, it was released in 1921, a year before Nosferatu which is arguably the most widely known film of the movement, and  a couple of years after The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari. Yet it has a distinctive feel to it that makes it a rather stand out film.

This isn't Lang's first film, for he had directed about a dozen before this one and written many more, but I think it's the earliest of his I'll ever see, for apart from the fact that his early films are almost impossible to find, I think it is with this film that he really became one of the important emerging directors of Europe, for he could hardly have gained such renown with films like "The Spiders"...

Luckily though he did gather much praise for this film when it was first released and thus leaving his heroic fantasy days behind (at least for a while) he went on the direct films that have not only influenced European Cinema but also directors all over the world, Metropolis for example was the most expensive silent film ever made and while the title of first Science Fiction film would assuredly go to Melies's Le Voyage Dans La Lune, Metroplis can easily claim to be the most influential film of that genre up until 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But Lang also proved to have a keen eye for Thrillers and Mysteries, directing such films as the Dr Mabuse Trilogy, Spies and M, these films were all ground-breaking in their various ways, Spies for example practically started the Espionage thriller genre so without it we wouldn't have such films as the James Bonds.

Sadly though Lang was forced to flee to the US before the war, thus he left Europe and the successes of what I think were his finest films behind him and went on to direct many Film Noir's and Action/Adventure films, which all though they are acclaimed by critics really can't be compared to the genius of his earlier work.
But such is the fate of many European directors who leave for Hollywood, one has just to think of Mathieu Kassowitz or Tom Tykwer, both promising young directors who left for Hollywood and who are now almost forgotten.
But I digress, back to the review at hand:

The film tells the tragic tale of a young, recently and apparently happily, married couple, but their happiness is cut short when the man is suddenly snatched away while they pass their time in a small village.
It just so happens that a mysterious Stranger had taken up residence in this village not long before and had surrounded his newly purchased land with an impenetrable and insurmountable wall of stone.
The young woman arrives at this wall in search of her missing husband, and there she finds him, but sadly he is dead, for he had been snatched away by none other then Death himself who also happened to be the Stranger.
Yet she refuses to give him up, she travels to Death's realm in search of her lost love, and there challenges Death, for she believes that Love will triumph over Death, Death naturally thinks otherwise but nonetheless he decides to give her a chance to prove her theory, for after all he is weary of his divine appointed task, in which he sees much sorrow and is much reviled only for doing his duty to God (hence the title of the film, The Weary Death). This task will take the Young Woman to three different continents in three different era's where she must save a different incarnation of her love from Death. She has but to succeed in saving one of these incarnations, and Death will grant her the life of her husband.
Will she succeed in saving him in at least one of these scenarios? Will she prove that Love can triumph over Death?
Well, you'll have to watch it to find out, all I can say is that it ends very satisfactorily....

I would hesitate to call this a ground breaking film, at least from a technical point of view, but it certainly is one of the most important films of the Expressionist movement, and I would strongly recommend watching it to all those interested in that Movement in particular or in the history of Cinema at all.
It's ideas about Love and Death were most intriguing, the fact the Death is cursed all around the world when he is only doing the bidding of his creator.
It's visions on the Foreign locations it depicts as well as it's thoughts of Love and Death are highly romanticised. But the film never fails to be entertaining and I found the purity and even the simplicity to be most welcome especially in such cynical and hard times as these.

I think what stood out the most about this film was the variety of different sets that appeared throughout.
For that is what elevates this film from among it's contemporaries in a technical way, for other films of this time such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari only used a certain number of sets and it is hard not to notice the way the same set is used again and again. So I was expecting something similar from this film and was astounded to see such a variety of detailed sets.
For the film takes place in four different countries, Germany (the main story), Italy (for a tragic romance), China (for a farce mixed in with magical elements) and Persia (for an "Arabian Nights style" tale). So I can imagine that a large amount of sets would have had to be built, for they are all very different and very detailed. Although very caricatured, the representations of different cultures were done well enough, apart from the Chinese one which I thought wasn't in tone with the other two at all as it involves much ridiculous sorcery, often descends into a farce and the Chinamen were depicted as very strange creatures with some sort of claw like hands.
The other technicalities of the film cannot rival those of the films of Gance or Eisenstein but are still more than adequate.

Death has been represented in physical form many times in Cinema, the most notable example would be in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (or Woody Allen's hilarious "Love and Death"), I've always found these physical representations to be somewhat puzzling but I do realise that such practices were hardly made out of choice but rather out of necessity for with their lack of such CGI as is available today they had little choice but to present Death in a physical form.

I can't really go into any details concerning the films plot as I assume not many people have seen it so I wouldn't want to spoil what is a surprisingly suspenseful storyline.
Of course it may sound rather fairy-tale like but I can assure you that it certainly surprised me with it's views on Death, Destiny and Love.
I think it's a shame such wide and all-encompassing yet often simple themes aren't touched upon in recent films any more, people seem more concerned with so called "escapism" in their viewing and don't think that Cinema can offer incredible insight into the Human soul and are beliefs. But such films are increasingly rare, often supposedly deep films these days are purposefully depressing and overly serious in their tone, this film however tragic it is does not wallow in it's own darkness, instead it offers something more, it doesn't show the viewer that all Humans die in various horrible ways and such is the tragic existence we live, it shows Death as a part of Life and much of the latter part of the film deals with acceptance of this fact.

On a side note, this is a film that had a impact that was even more far reaching than anyone could have imagined, supposedly this is the film that made a young Luis Bunuel decide to pursue a career as a Director. So I say, thank god for this film for without it we might not have had one of the greatest directors in history!

So overall Der Mude Tod is Fritz Lang's breakthrough film and an important highlight of the Expressionist Movement, it is not without it's flaws but it tells a simple yet sometimes thought provoking and always entertaining story.
Highly recommended.


  1. M and Metropolis were chilling enough. I'll read this properly in the evening.

  2. The subject of death is the most difficult, mysterious, not to say most important, so the director has taken on a tough challenge of tackling this impossible theme. I would probably enjoy seeing and reviewing this, particularly since it is from no less than Lang. And you have introduced it so well.

  3. Thanks
    It most definitely is a tough subject, but Lang was a talented director and he handles is admirably.
    I'm sure you'll enjoy it, especially if you like Lang's work, although this isn't as great as M and Metropolis...