Criterion Prediction #260: Destiny, by Alexander Miller
Title: Destiny (Der Müde Tod)
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Lil Dagover, Berhard Goetzke, Walter Jannsen, Hans Sternberg
Synopsis: A young couple is traveling to a small village. They give a ride to a mysterious stranger who happens to be dead. Shortly afterward, it’s revealed to the young woman that her partner is dead, dismayed by the news; she confronts the stranger who turns out to be Death. As Death reveals his trade, he decides to present three stories from varying parts of the world that parallel her current situation to illustrate fate’s infallible nature.
Critique: Destiny is a charming oddity from Fritz Lang; there’re the silent films, the sizzling mania of his German-language talkies (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is an example of his mad genius), then his Hollywood era, rife with punchy noir’s, westerns and thrillers and the lesser celebrated return to Germany with movies like The Indian Tomb and The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. So, a heady rumination on the nature of existence, rife with fatalism and religious overtones, you know, a movie like Destiny would seem like a more “end-of-career” project, however, this is one of Lang’s earliest efforts. It’s a loaded picture that breaks down the structure in favor of a three-act anthology film that jumps from its native turf (the title card at the start reads “Some Time Some Place”) to a trio of lushly realized and exoticized locales. Once our protagonist, the “Young Woman” confronts Death, he reveals that his career is more utilitarian, and Lang slides in a brilliant framing device as Death presents three candles, each represents a life, and the wick is almost burnt out of each one.
First, we pole-vault to Southwest Asia during Ramadan in what’s referred to as “The City of the Faithful” in the first story or, The Story of the First Light is a jaunty mashup of a pulpy, romantic riff of imperial intrigue. Our second foray into inescapable finality brings us to Venice, not quite a modern period leading us into another winding story of dramatic spectacle, with dueling romantics vying for the affection of a young woman. The third candle transports us to imperial China and arguably stands as the strongest of the lot. A wizard, Ah-Hi, is summoned to entertain the Emperor with his magic, but the lecherous ruler is more consumed with Ah-Hi’s assistant, ergo troubles follow. With the cast donning “exotic” garb, playing different ethnicities, exploring the various cultures, you’d think Destiny would bear some more problematic fruit; after all, maybe this is the reason why such an elaborate picture from none other than Fritz Lang has been off the radar for so long? However, the ever stalwart hand of Lang, there’s an artistic balance that veers close to dating itself, and in some ways, it does. Still, there’s a genuine fascination emitting from Lang’s visionary expression, and the final product is more curious than exploitative. The innovations are bold and never showy; there’s true technical prowess at work, while there are some points that don’t quite connect as thematic repetition overshadows some beats (and the contrasting vignettes overlap) the creative determination and penchant for entrapment and the flawed nature of humanity makes Destiny an odd but flavorful offering from one of cinema’s greatest talents.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Well, before making a case for Destiny to get a spine number, can we please ask for a damn Blu-ray upgrade of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse already? For Destiny, a film available in a handsome Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber, the Masters of Cinema edition is marginally more handsome with more bonus features and design. It’s well known that The Masters of Cinema series is a precursor for a Criterion release.