Some of acclaimed filmmaker Fritz Lang’s best films were made during the silent era, including such masterpieces as Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, the two-part Die Nibelungen films Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge, Metropolis, and Woman In the Moon. Another Lang silent classic is one of his earliest features, Destiny. It was a film that reportedly didn’t do well at the German box office for “not being German enough” (whatever that means), although it did well internationally (Douglas Fairbanks actually bought the U.S. distribution rights to the film, then delayed its U.S. release so that he could copy the special effects of the Persian sequence for Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad). I actually got a chance to see Lang’s Destiny on the big screen at Film Forum in New York City last month in a brand new DCP restoration (commemorating its 95th anniversary), and it was a fascinating, worthwhile experience.
1921’s Destiny follows a young woman in a 19th century German village who, after the disappearance of her fiancée, is given three chances by Death (who himself is weary of taking lives) to save the young man from the afterlife. Each chance takes place in a fantastical yet historical-looking setting (an Arabian Nights-type setting, a Renaissance-era setting, and an ancient Chinese setting). Lang gathered an impressive cast that included Lil Dagover (as the Young Woman/various characters), Bernhard Goetzke (as Death/various characters), Walter Janssen (as the Young Man/various characters), Rudolf Klein-Rogge (as Derwisch/Girolamo), Hans Sternberg (as the Mayor), Eric Pabst (as the Teacher), Max Adalbert (as the Notary), Georg John (as the Beggar), Karl Rückert (as the Reverend), and Wilhelm Diegelmann (as the Doctor). Goetzke is haunting and mesmerizing (as well as somewhat sympathetic) as the figure of Death (clearly an influence on Bengt Ekerot’s portrayal of Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal more than 30 years later). Dagover shines as the young woman who tries to save her fiancée in the present as well as three different time periods.
The screenplay by Lang and Thea Von Harbou examines the power of love (with some influence from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance). The cinematography by Bruno Mondi, Erich Nitzschmann, Herrmann Saalfrank, Bruno Timm, and Fritz Arno Wagner looks gorgeous, especially the underground cavern lit by numerous candles. The Expressionistic production design by Robert Herlth, Walter Röhrig, and Hermann Warm is very impressive, suiting four different eras (I loved the cemetery wall, the rest of the German village, the underground room with the candles, and the Persian palace), and the special effects are just stunning. Heinrich Umlauff’s costume designs are first-rate, and Lang’s editing moves the film at an excellent pace. Lang’s Destiny is a German Expressionistic silent classic that, brought Lang worldwide acclaim, was highly influential on future filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Bunuel and, thanks to a brand new digital restoration, can be rediscovered by cinephiles across the world.