Sunday, 3 January 2016
German Expressionism: DESTINY (1921)
FRITZ LANG: ‘THE SLEEP-WALKING CERTAINTY’
The quality of unlikely sympathy earned by a perceived monster connected Murnau’s NOSFERATU and the mournful, apologetic presence of Death in the first Expressionist film by Fritz Lang - DESTINY.
Fritz Lang had run away from his family home in Vienna as a young man to become a painter in Paris. Whilst waiting for his call-up to the Austrian army in World War One, he worked in cabaret writing a couple of film scripts for early silent films before he served his duty. Lang avoided front-line action due to near-sightedness but was still wounded, and on returning from the war as a near-penniless Lieutenant in 1918 wondered how he would make ends meet - until Peter Ostermeier offered him a lead role with his theatre company. He was recommended to Erich Pommer (producer of THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI) who took him on as a dramaturg - essentially a ‘story doctor’. Although Lang had written films that were produced, he had no knowledge of movie production or the mechanics, and yet he soon went from writing a script in four days to shooting one in the same time-frame and here began his career as a director.
DESTINY (1921). After his first features THE SPIDERS: PART I and II, the opening two of an abandoned serial of four films dealing with a criminal gang, Lang made his first stand-alone film DESTINY, (‘Der Müde Tod’ – literally ‘The Tired Death’) - one of the earliest ‘portmanteau’ multi-story horror films. It was essentially a fantasy but the reccurring physical character of Death and a haunting atmosphere of sombre dread earns it a place within the horror genre.
DESTINY was written by Lang with his wife Thea Van Harbou and produced by Erich Pommer. It concerns a young honeymoon couple where the husband vanishes into the sealed-off graveyard bought by a mysterious black caped and hatted stranger (Death, played by Bernhard Goetzke). In trying to find him, the man’s wife (Lil Dagover) is offered a chance by Death to return her husband if she can save his life across three historical periods in Persia, China and Venice. Each failure extinguishes a candle in the hall of Death designed by Fritz Arno Wagner.
What makes DESTINY so striking is the almost regretful demeanour of Goetzke’s Grim Reaper, a touching performance and an ideal sombre face of gaunt, high cheekbones and heavy-lidded eyes. There is also fun to be had in spotting which role he hides in during each unfolding episode in the test.