When pressed once about his stylistic influences, Alfred Hitchcock replied, “The Germans. The Germans.”
Hitchcock was especially bewitched by the work of Fritz Lang, who, at the time Hitchcock was pondering his cinematic career path and working as a title-card designer for silents, had made just a handful of films. The one that steered Hitchcock toward directing, as he imparted to Francois Truffaut, was 1921’s Der Müde Tod, which had a brief run in the United States in 1923 as Between Two Worlds and is better known by its original English-language title, Destiny.
The film also shaped the destiny of Luis Buñuel, who first encountered it while in Paris in the mid-1920s. “When I saw Destiny,” he writes in his rich memoir, My Last Sigh, “I suddenly knew that I too wanted to make movies. … it clarified my life and my vision of the world.”
Destiny inspired Douglas Fairbanks’s bold magic carpet ride in his 1924 production of The Thief of Bagdad. Though Destiny was not a commercial success in its native Germany, its impacts on the Expressionist film movement were significant, and its sway over European filmmakers grew throughout the 1920s and ’30s; films as diverse as F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926), Hitchcock’s own The Lodger (1927) and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) alternately realize visual ideas Lang experimented with in Destiny and borrow stylistically from Destiny. Its ghost has haunted horror movies for nearly a century.
Yet Destiny rarely appears on lists or in discussions of great movies, even those limited to silent films. In fact, among Lang’s own filmography, Destiny often lurks in the shadows of his early masterworks Metropolis and M, as well as his later Hollywood film noirs including Ministry of Fear, The Woman in the Window and The Big Heat.
Surely Destiny is destined for a rediscovery, fueled by its recent (and gorgeous) restoration by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, as well as its new accessibility to a broader audience via a proper Blu-ray release and its availability on Netflix streaming.
Subtitled “A German Folk Song” and set primarily in “a town lost to memory,” Destiny plays as a darkly comic fairytale. An amorous, young couple (Walter Janssen and Lang regular Lil Dagover) arrives in the village and takes to the inn, where the hot topic is “the Stranger,” a steely, black-clad figure whom viewers are aware is Death (Bernhard Goetzke, perhaps cinema’s gravest and greatest incarnation of the Grim Reaper).
The Stranger has constructed a massive, doorless, windowless wall around ground that was to be a cemetery and that he has purportedly acquired for a garden. At the inn, he insinuates himself with the couple; in one of the film’s great visual tricks, a beer stein—the pub’s “bridal cup”—becomes an hourglass, fast running down, as a skeleton-like shadow passes across the table.
The woman leaves briefly and returns to find her fiancé has vanished. She is told he left with the Stranger. She trails them to the wall; as she searches for an entry, ghosts stream forth from the countryside. A gothic archway opens in the wall, revealing a narrow stairway that she ascends to Death’s garden, an endless field of candles, one for each life.
It was, he tells her, her lover’s time; just as it is time for an infant, who emerges suddenly in Death’s arms, stolen as they converse (the impact of the visual effect is heightened by Lang’s heart-breaking cut to the grieving mother). But being Death, as one may imagine, is a pretty heavy gig—“It is a curse,” he says, and its toll shows in Goetzke’s hollow eyes and weary frown—and so he gives his guest a chance to test her belief that love is stronger than death, a variation on the recurring Lang theme of whether and to what extent fate is inexorable.
Death gestures to three candles, each a life about to be snuffed out. If she can save at least one, Death will restore her fiancé. From here, Destiny ventures to Baghdad, Venice and China as we see three versions of a similar narrative play out with Dagover, Janssen and Goetzke in key roles, and with carryover motifs of walls, stairways and gardens. And here is where Destiny loses a bit of momentum, due in part to the ultimatum.
As we know the woman only has to save one of the three lives at stake, and as the similarities between the first detour and the bookend story become evident, we know the first individual is a goner or the movie is over. The subsequent tales can’t help but feel repetitive as it becomes clear in each the woman is playing into Death’s hands. While these interior stories are stretched thin, Lang invests them with imaginative force, and Destiny recovers for a powerful climax and satisfactorily ironic conclusion.
Destiny was made on the cusp of the silent-era camera’s liberation, notably in Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), which brings to fruition seeds sown by Lang in Destiny. Lang, however, was a master of composition and moving action within the frame, and among the filmmakers associated with Expressionism he was the most nimble at employing evocative, abstract visuals in the service of straightforward narrative.
The Germans. The early filmmakers of Germany, and crucially Lang with Destiny, shaped the language of movies to come; or maybe revealed our cinematic destiny.