Destiny ★★★★★

Der mude Tod (1921) translates as Weary Death, a much more descriptive title than the generic Destiny usually affixed to the film in English-speaking countries. Death (Bernard Goetzke) is indeed weary, tired of being feared and hated by the mortals he is instructed by God to visit. After all, he is only doing his job.

When the Young Woman (Lil Dagover), distraught over the untimely death of her lover, the Young Man (Walter Janssen), begs for the return of his life, Death weakens and offers her three opportunities to deliver her beloved. We are then transported, first to ancient Baghdad, then Renaissance Italy, and finally to legendary China. The Young Lovers appear in each episode, and in each story she is unable to save him from his fate.

Desperate, she then looks among the aged and diseased for someone to exchange his or her life for that of the Young Man. No matter how sick or decrepit, none are willing to give up life.

Finally, a newborn baby is trapped in a burning building. The Young Woman enters and finds the infant. Death appears one last time and offers her the life of the baby for that of the Young Man; she is unable to sacrifice the infant, effects its rescue, and perishes herself in the flames. We then see her reunited for eternity with her beloved in Death’s Garden.

Goetzke is brilliant in the title role, making Death seem forbidding, weary, yet somehow sympathetic, all at the same time. Dagover is appealing in the other major role; Janssen has little to do but die over and over, which he does quite effectively. Rudolf Klein-Rogge, the future Dr. Mabuse, plays two minor parts quite well.

Der mude Tod is an early collaboration between writer/director Fritz Lang and his wife, writer Thea von Harbou. They went on to work together on such classics as Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), Metropolis (1927), Spies (1928), Woman in the Moon (1929), M (1931), and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933).

Der mude Tod has been called Lang’s (and Harbou’s) first masterpiece. I heartily agree.

Seen at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, June 2016.