Tuesday, July 30, 2013

DER MÜDE TOD (aka DESTINY) (1921)

Fritz Lang would grow up to direct M and METROPOLIS, but he cut his genre teeth with this early fantasy entry that's all about how death robs you of your loved ones.  But don't get out your cryin' towel yet, DESTINY is a remarkably fun film given its dire subject.  Any film that begins with this title card has already won my heart:


Fritz Lang is still a better storyteller than Jane Austen.  Into this setting comes a pair of lovers, riding in a carriage, kissing, and getting eyeballed by a pervert duck in a basket.  


They wrap the duck in a bandana because the ASPCA was essentially etiolated in Some Place, but the creepiness doesn't end there.  Because Death (Bernhard Goetzke) waits at the crossroads, as Bone Thugz-N-Harmony tried to warn us.


Death hitches a ride to town and plays on the greed of its prominent citizens in order to purchase land abutting the cemetery.  The satirical presentation of these elders is ultra-sharp, as we meet all of them in mid-gulp or -gnaw, the movie deflating their reputations by displaying their base behavior.  DESTINY succeeds at doing what THE BELLS tried to do.


Bernhard Goetzke might be my favorite Death ever, beating Brad Pitt and the guy from BILL AND TED part 2.  He's so gaunt and world-weary, a distinctly different approach from the usual Deaths of the spookier school.  The script affords him a real character, as he complains about being blamed for loss when he's really just a tool acting on God's orders.  


So he builds a wall to keep prying townie eyes away from his "garden".


Meanwhile, our lovers drink and adorn themselves with multiple cats, unaware that a time of reaping nears.


Then it's time to take off the cats and put on mourning robes.


We haven't even reached the real meat of the film yet!  Death is a good sport, so he offers three chances to stymie planned deaths in other times and places.  In exchange, he'll restore a loved one to life.  First, we visit the violent world of the Amish.


Lol jk, it's really Muslim country.  I don't want to get too spoily with the plots here, as this anthology portion of the film is really the bulk of what you'll be viewing.  I will say that I was pleased to see Goetzke and silent siren Lil Dagover inserted into each entry as new(?) characters—it allowed the actors to demonstrate their range while integrating our three stories with the wraparound.  This desert-set first foray is loaded with entertainment, as well as impressive sets and costuming.


Enjoy tits while you can because their time nears.  The Hays Code, like Death itself, would soon steal them away right at their apex of ripeness.  


This second story is a significant step down.  Italy being a fellow Euro country, perhaps it did not provide enough of a blank slate for the filmmakers to wrest entertainment out of the concept.  It's an okay tale, but nothing amazing.  The best aspects are the elements that connect to the rest of the film, like the recurring candle and stairway motifs.  


But don't worry, we're off to China, which might as well be Neptune, given how alien and arcane behavior seems to be.  People sit on the floor and kiss like stunned birds.  These two assist famed magician A Hi with his magical endeavors.


If you say nothing else about DESTINY, you must admit that it is bold.  They stuck a flying carpet scene two segments after the Middle Eastern portion of the film!


A Hi is summoned to the local magnate's birthday party and we get a reprisal of the film's critique of power.  Note the guy's Wolverine talons, not the hands of someone who spends days picking cotton or washing dishes.


But maybe he has a good personality??


This segment of DESTINY delivers on all fronts.  Lovers of comedy, connoisseurs of magic, and people who like unsheathed allegories for penises will all be very pleased.


The effectiveness of the Chinese and Middle Eastern scenes relative to the mediocrity of the Italy-set stuff seems to suggest that stereotyping can have its advantages.  Who would rather watch authentic/boring cultural practices than dreamy BS about flying carpets and elongated fingernails and magic horses?  Plus DESTINY is tapping into a rich cultural tradition that dates back to Herodotus claiming that Africans ejaculate black sludge and that their lands are full of flying snakes.  Read a book if you don't believe me.


Even with the slight nadir of the central segment, DESTINY is glorious viewing.  It's so alive and creative, and yet Lang blends and connects all the disparate parts with a master's touch.  I seriously did not expect the list to change until we got to NOSFERATU, but...

RATING: 7/10

TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) 
2. Faust (1926)
3. The Golem (1920)
4. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
5. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
6. The Unknown (1927)
7. Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
8. The Wind (1928)
9. Der Müde Tod aka Destiny (1921)
10. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

No comments: