#4 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
Fritz Lang’s first five surviving films are largely workmanlike films that seem to be chasing simple pleasures of popular genre. Destiny, Lang’s seventh film, is outright art. Part of a small subgenre of dramas of the era (like Leaves from Satan’s Book by Dreyer) heavily inspired by DW Griffith’s Intolerance that told interrelated tales across different eras of history, Fritz Lang’s Destiny has one of the strongest framing devices I’ve seen in this kind of film. There’s a wonderful emotional element that runs through it all, a very strong throughline that informs the small anthology in intelligent ways. This is a giant leap above Lang’s other work, based on a script that he wrote with his wife Thea von Harbou, and it marks the arrival of a remarkable talent.
A young couple (Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen) arrive in a small town by buggy, picking up Death (Bernhard Goetzke) along the way. Death is called The Stranger by the powers that be in the town, a group of old men who gather in the local tavern after their days of work and discuss matters and gossip. All they talk about these days is the Stranger and how he purchased the plot of land next to the cemetery, built a huge wall all around it with no discernable entrance, and how no one is ever going in or out. When the couple and Death sit at a table on the other side of the tavern, the woman gets up to go to the other room, coming back to discover both Death and her husband missing. She begins a long search throughout the town until she confronts Death himself, knowing who he is at this point, and demands to know how she can win her husband back. Death is forever, he explains, but if she can win one of three lives from his grasp (represented by three lit candles), he will return her beloved.
These are the three tales, each centered on a couple in love being kept apart by some kind of authority and power. All of the central roles are played by Dagover, Janssen, and Goetzke, helping to create a sense of familiarity between the stories with vastly different visual senses and quickly establishing emotional connections because we associate Dagover’s new characters with her wraparound character at the same time.
The first is set in an Islamic city where a Frank has fallen in love with the caliph’s sister. His mere presence in the city is an afront to the powers that be, and the idea of a relationship between the foreigner and the calif’s own sister is anathema. When he sneaks into the palace, the guards are called and the hunt is on, eventually leading to his capture and death. The second is set in Venice during Carnival where a lord is about to marry a young lady who loves another young man. She sets out to murder he soon-to-be husband, but the man figures out the ploy and gets her to kill the lover instead. The third is set in medieval China where the emperor calls on the magicians of his kingdom to entertain him. One magician brings along his two assistants, a young pair of lovers, and they get pulled apart when the emperor is more entertained by the idea of having the girl than anything else. A chase develops, and the young man ends up dying.
The young lover in the more contemporary wraparound story has lost her bet with Death. She was unable to save any of the lovers, and yet Death decides to offer her some pity, giving her a way to connect with her lost love yet again. It’s surprisingly touching how it plays out, reinforced by the three tales. It’s a shockingly affecting story as it plays out, anchored by Lil Dagover’s pained performance and the surprisingly touching take on Death by Goetzke.
However, there’s more to this film than just the story. Firmly ensconced in the traditions of German Expressionism, this represents the greatest physical production of Fritz Lang’s early career. The huge wall is impressive. The three different time periods and distinct, easily recognizable, and intricately detailed. There’s a lot of emphasis on vertical spaces and motion, especially when the stairs magically appear in the wall that the female lover must climb up to meet Death. Given the nature of the Chinese tale as well, there’s room for real fantastical elements like a flying carpet (that reminded me of both The Thief of Bagdad and Faust) and even a scroll that comes alive and dances around the screen. It’s all very simple special effects (double exposures of different techniques depending on the nature of what’s moving around is the most common), but they’re magical and endearing all the same.
I’d been a bit lukewarm on Lang’s output up to this point, but this is the work of a filmmaker who needs to reach beyond the lowest common denominator. This is still firmly a melodrama, but the tackling of the complex storytelling structure along with the strong emphasis on well-executed fantastical visuals, elevates it above the earlier melodramas or adventures like Four around the Woman or The Spiders films. This is really great stuff.