UK Release Date: 24th July 2017
Runtime: 98 minutes
Director: Fritz Lang
Writer: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
Starring: Lil Dagover, Bernhard Goetze, Walter Janssen, Karl Platen, Paul Biensteldt, Eduard von Winterstein, Rudolph Klein-Rogge
Synopsis: A bereaved woman takes on Death in order to convince him to return her beloved to life.
When you think of German Expressionist cinema from the 1920s, the first name that will leap to mind is Fritz Lang. Whether it’s the serial killer thrills of M or the satirical heavy-lifting of Metropolis, his films have left indelible footprints on the history of cinema. One of his earlier pieces of work is the ambitious fantasy drama Der müde Tod, which translates literally as ‘The Weary Death’ and was released as Destiny in English territories. It’s a poetic, lyrical anthology story centered around a lovelorn heroine trying to outwit Death in order to return to the arms of her deceased partner.
A couple (Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen) are travelling in a carriage on a country road when they pick up a mysterious hitchhiker (Bernhard Goetze) dressed all in black, unaware that he is Death himself. When Death later takes the man away, his partner tracks Death down and asks him to return her boyfriend to life. Death, who has grown weary with his job, offers her the chance to bring her boyfriend back if she can successfully save the life of one of three men marked for death. The film then tells the stories of each of the three men (Janssen) and the efforts of various women (Dagover) to save them, while Death keeps a watchful eye.
Der müde Tod is a masterful and poetic piece of filmmaking that unfolds with structural elegance and sublime craft. In the early stages, Lang creates a real sense of mystery with his introduction of Goetze’s sinister, cloaked figure with dark, soulless eyes. His detachment is the perfect contrast to Dagover and Jansssen’s sickly sweet romance, which seems ill-fitting in the environs of the secluded village in which the story is set. Lang paints the dignitaries and residents of the village as grotesque caricatures, allowing Death to build his fortress just outside their village border.
The episodic nature of the story in Der müde Tod helps to give the film a real narrative momentum throughout. Each of the three separate tales that unfold during the course of the film are wildly ambitious in their own right, spanning the entire world from Venice to China, and weaving stories of tyrannical men exerting horrific patriarchal control over women. All three tales have their own twists and turns and are realised with artful style by Lang, with beautiful sets and a delightfully dreamlike tone.
The pair of central performances from Goetze and Dagover – star of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari – are outstanding. Goetze is deeply sinister as Death, but is also able to sell the idea of an immortal being weary and broken down by the pressures of omnipotence and the grim nature of his work. Dagover, meanwhile, does a stellar job in her main role and also brings a sense of desperation to her other roles in the three tragic tales, bringing it all together in the epilogue, which takes yet another turn for the expected en route to a poignant final moment.
Lang’s striking visual style is present and correct throughout Der müde Tod, which is a real treat to look at. In stark contrast to the monolithic structures that would be depicted in Metropolis, it’s a film of small villages and dusty pathways where Death hides. It’s also a film with a compelling and subtle message about the nature of death, using the flickering of candles as a visual motif, enhanced by candle-shaped archways and bridges that amplify the idea. Der müde Tod ends on a bittersweet note, with a conclusion that is devastating, romantic and instantly memorable.
There’s an audio commentary by film critic Tim Lucas and an interesting video essay by David Cairns that delves into some of the themes behind the film and Lang’s career as a whole.
Pop or Poop?
Fritz Lang’s ability to construct memorable cinematic art with minimal resources is evidenced clearly by Der müde Tod, which is a haunting and poetic tale with death at its centre. The performances are strong and the visuals are an impressive example of the German Expressionist style that was so popular with filmmakers like Lang, Murnau and Wiene at the time.
Der müde Tod is a deeply ambitious and interesting piece of work that showcases the sheer scale of Lang’s mastery over the medium. It’s not quite as visually and thematically spectacular as Metropolis, but it might well be his best work.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Der müde Tod is available on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK now, courtesy of Eureka Entertainment.