What an extraordinary rediscovery. In 1921 – six years before his masterpiece ‘Metropolis’ and 15 before he fled fascist Germany for Hollywood and helped to kickstart the film noir movement – master director Fritz Lang and his wife and regular writing partner, Thea von Harbou dreamt up this glowering slice of silent cinematic sorcery.
The title translates literally as ‘The Weary Death’, but ‘Der Müde Tod’ was released in English under the nondescript moniker ‘Destiny’. It follows Death (Bernhard Goetzke), who has grown tired of his endless task and buys a plot of land outside a sleepy European village. Here he builds a vast wall, and the only living person able to enter within is an unnamed innocent (Lil Dagover), whose quest to rescue her beloved will send her on a dreamlike quest from Venice to the Middle East to China, where she will bear witness to three doomed romances.
Shot in the aftermath of the Great War, in a land where death was far from a stranger, ‘Der Müde Tod’ is weighty with a sense of portent and grim fate. But Lang’s direction is never heavy-handed. Instead, he glories in the magic-weaving possibilities of cinema, from gorgeous visual effects – there’s a lovely flying carpet sequence – to expressionist sets, dreamy dissolves and postmodern looks-to-camera. This one will haunt your dreams.