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Der müde Tod or Destiny as it’s commonly called in English, is a silent film written by Fritz Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou, and directed by Lang. Released in 1921, a year before Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, it is a pretty neat example of folk storytelling at the margins of German Expressionism.
Like everything Lang, it’s a beautifully shot movie. I mean, there’s always been a certain magic about silent films in general because of the primacy of the image and because every other element is subverted by vision. It’s where the modern screenwriter’s tale of woe begins. Silent films could exist, and even flourish, without scripts, or with just a small thread of plot tying them together. And that’s certainly what we have here. The cinematography, the makeup, the set design, the expression in the actors’ eyes, all of these things are far more important than the bare-bones plot that holds them together.
Der müde Tod is basically a collection of short films with a frame story. The frame concerns a young woman who’s trying to bargain for her young lover’s life after Death has taken him to the underworld. Death (Bernhard Goetzke), comes to a small German village. He builds an enormous wall through which no mortal can pass. Plenty of dead souls pass through it, though. Lang seems to absolutely delight in shooting Death in wide shots as he stands against the wall he’s built, dwarfed by the thing. Interesting, then, that Lang sees death as something so small. When the woman (Lil Dagover) attempts to bargain for her lover, we realize that she has more power because, although she cannot defy Death, she can at least make the attempt, which means she possesses free will, and therefore more freedom, than this sad creature who is chained to his fate. And, as it turns out, Death is surprisingly human in this tale. He’s not happy with his lot, but it’s all he has. It’s who he is. And so he moves through eternity having accepted his lot. This is a Death that we feel for, sympathize with.
The three stories between the frame are all about doomed lovers throughout time. One story takes place somewhere in the Muslim world in the middle ages, another in medieval Italy, and the final in Middle Kingdom China. The places and people are mostly mythological. They’re caricatures, sometimes evenly overtly racist. Yes, of course, these things have to be viewed in context, but it can all be a little uncomfortable for a modern audience. Still, there’s a lot of heart and romanticism here. The three stories share the common thread of love cut short just as it’s starting to bloom.
Of course we all know that death can’t be cheated, but von Harbou and Lang find a neat workaround, giving us a happy ending that doesn’t feel like anyone’s been tricked. Still, Der müde Tod probably barely rises above the level of a curiosity unless you’re very into silent film, Fritz Lang, or both.