Thursday, November 06, 2008

Der Mude Tod (Destiny, Fritz Lang, 1921)

Death becomes her

Fritz Lang's 1921 Der Mude Tod (Destiny), which the Goethe Institute will be presenting this November 8, 7 pm at the St. Joseph Parish Church Las Pinas (Stephan von Bothmer to play accompaniment in the church's famous bamboo organ), is a wonder of a film, and a hugely influential one. Its effects have inspired Raoul Walsh's 1924 Thief of Baghdad, not to mention Michael Powell's 1940 remake. Its portrait of Death (Bernhard Goetzke) has affected both F.W. Murnau's outsized Mephisto (played by the equally outsized Emil Jannings), looming over Murnau's 1927 masterpiece Faust - Eine deutsche Volkssage (Faust - A German Folktale) and Ingmar Bergman's famously pale and hooded figure of Death (Bengt Ekerot) in Det Sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957)--and, if I'm not mistaken, has lent a bittersweet flavor to Lotte Reiniger's Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, 1926). It set a young Luis Bunuel on the path to filmmaking, and is considered one of Alfred Hitchcock's favorite films.

The story is simple enough--a young woman (Lil Dagover) realizes that Death has taken her lover (Walter Janssen); she attempts suicide, but is stopped at the entranceway to the afterlife by Death. She begs him to let her beloved go, and Death, professing a weariness of his role as doomsayer and all-around spoilsport, presents a counteroffer: he will let her lover go if she can save at least one of three lives in danger of being extinguished.

Over and over again the young woman tries; in various forms--as a Caliph's slave, as a Renaissance lady, as a Chinese magician's assistant--she's constantly risking life and limb to save her lover, who also takes on various roles. Over and over again the young man is stabbed, shot with an arrow, buried alive; Death, the third party in this triangle, each time takes on the role of enabler or executioner, each time is labeled with names like "The Moor" or "El Mot." The repetition becomes inevitable, oppressive; the woman's plight gains a sharpened sense of fatalistic poignancy with each succeeding failure.

Is the story key, however, to the film's greatness? I don't know--the script seems mostly a series of scenarios, designed to appeal to an audience's desire for foreign exotica (interesting though that Lang (with the help of his wife and scenarist Thea von Harbou) manages to impose a rigorously defining pattern over all that variety, and out of that pattern work out the film's themes), with a last-minute moral point thrown in. Possibly a matter of taste, but give me Goethe's style of dramaturgy in his masterwork, where the moral quandary is thoroughly foreshadowed, exhaustively debated, constantly framed and re-framed in each and every scene the hero is in, to the point that the tension becomes almost unbearable when the deadline nears and Faust's soul is in peril of damnation.

It doesn't help that Dagover represents the kind of heavy-boned Teutonic type actress, full of 19th century theatrical gestures that weighs on the early scenes of tender romance. It's only later, when she's lit and shot to emphasize her suffering, when she transcends hysteria to attain a higher plane of what I suppose is serenity (or the kind of acceptance you see in dumb beasts about to go under the knife) that she acquires a martyr's beauty.

Goetzke, though, makes for a perfect Death. Solemn and serene, with massive architectural cheeks and sunken eyes that Lang as often obscures in hooded shadows as he does reveal in flat, undistinguished light (Goetzke's gaze actually seems more expressive, more human when it's hidden). You don't doubt that he's the ancestor of Eskerot's Death; you also don't doubt that the original is more inscrutable, more serenely unsettling.

Beyond Goetzke, though, is Lang's inimitable filmmaking. Working on a limited budget (I imagine Murnau and Griffith (whose Intolerance (1916) was an aesthetic ancestor in its use of multiple storylines and fatalist tone) enjoyed more financial resources while doing their fantasies), Lang creates a metaphysical drama as compelling, if not more so, using effects as basic as lighting, framing, and the multiple exposure. Death comes to a small Flemish town, buys land near a cemetery, erects an impossibly high wall around the land without gate or door; Lang shoots the wall head-on, filling the screen with mortared stone--we see Death walking at the foot of the wall, a small figure cuing us to the size and scale of the edifice. The young woman picks up a bottle of poison; Lang drops out the image of her actually drinking and fades directly to her hands in repose, her face looking in wonder at her suddenly new surroundings (it's as if Lang were suggesting death was as much a matter of falling asleep and dreaming as it was a state of physical reality). She walks through a portal shaped and lit to resemble a shining sword (a metaphysical blade, that inserts itself between the realms of life and death?), to a staircase that reaches endlessly heavenwards.

In the Muslim sequence one remembers the rooftop sequence, the sense of dread felt while waiting for the young woman to realize her lover's fate; Lang stages this as if it were a play, with the crucial action happening off-camera, leaving the audience with this urgent need to look down past the lower right side of the screen. In the Renaissance sequence one remembers the gigantic curtains, the deadly duel played out before it moving back and forth, the assassin behind the curtains preparing to deal the death blow (if in earlier story death is brutally out in the open here, Lang suggests, death is the distance in steps from an unnoticed curtain, and a treacherously hidden poisoned blade). In the third sequence the lovers transform into a holy statue and a giant cat, a startling show of imagination and defiance in the face of the inevitable.

The film's finest effect, however, is its simplest: a trio of candles that gradually expire, one after another, at the end of each story. A more potent image of the transient nature of life I'd be hard put to name; the smoke curling up from the just-extinguished flame suggests just-snuffed souls rising heavenwards.

I called the film's conclusion a 'sudden moral point.' I'm being ungenerous--it's an ironic finale that plays ruthlessly fair to the story's premise, at the same time it mutes the harsh conclusion with a strange tenderness. The film's German title translates literally to "the weary Death," and throughout the film you can't help but feel that despite his impassivity, Death does harbor some sympathy for the film's heroine; the conclusion, unless I'm reading too much between the lines (between the intertitles?) seems to bear this out. It's a great albeit flawed film, very much worth watching. Go, see.


Anonymous said...

...please where can I buy a unicorn?

Noel Vera said...

On E-bay, of course. Duh!