Destiny (1921)


  • directed by Fritz Lang
  • starring Lil Dagover, Bernhard Goetzke, Walter Janssen
  • The grim reaper comes calling at a small village inn, leaving a young man’s fiancé brokenhearted and desperate to bring him back.

It’s hard to generalize about Fritz Lang’s early work since so many of his films are lost but there a few things that I recognize in the ones that I’ve been able to see. First, it’s clear that the director was outgrowing his creative limitations with each output. Destiny was a far more mature film than his last effort, Spiders, which despite some effective adventure sequences devolved into one of the most scattered messes of a plot I’ve ever seen. Both films contain truly transcendent moments and groundbreaking techniques, Destiny moreso with landmark effects and a brilliantly rendered otherworldly mood, but the reality is by 1921, Lang didn’t yet have a great film to his name. Maybe I’m wrong and in his pile of lost titles there will be the discovery of an unseen knockout. I hope that’s the case but something tells me, considering another presumed advance in skill is soon coming with the introduction of his Dr. Mabuse, that there was still some development needed for Lang, particularly with narrative stability.

Destiny tells four stories, the bookends being that of a young couple’s unexpected brush with Death, a chiseled-faced, white-eyed figure who takes the man to the other side and bargains with the woman desperate to bring him back. The figure of death in the film is a dark and imposing one no doubt but he comes to show us something of a soft and remorseful side in his dealings with the woman. He grabs her hand tenderly while walking, laments becoming so hated because of what he’s tasked with, and for once is willing to explore the idea of a reprieve in the form of telling the woman three stories each represented by a dimming candle in his grand and atmospheric chamber. Each of the three tell of similar devastated-lover circumstances and if she can figure out how to help just one of them avoid their fate, then Death will grant her man his return. The woman’s ascent into death’s realm and the scenes that unfold from there are full of emotional visuals and it’s all a very convincing illustration of how a supernatural side to the world would and should appear.

There’s an Arabian story, one set in Renaissance-era Venice, and then the only one of the three that actually works, a playful and whimsical ancient Chinese story that contains the film’s greatest effects work. The woman fails at all three, mainly because she’s naïve enough to think that she can outsmart death or aid her subject in outrunning it. What she doesn’t realize until the end when she’s given her one final chance of a reunion is that really the only way for love to win over death is for it to exist uninterrupted in spite of it. There are a few discussions between the woman and Death about the power of each side over the other and there is more than one way to interpret how the ending speaks to such a monumental struggle. Cynics, of which I am almost always a card-carrying member, will say that unconquerable death will win every time and once something is lost there is very little love can do to save it. The romantics, however, a group supported by the message of the film I believe, can grant victory to love only when it acknowledges death and then succumbs to it so that it can go on to flourish in the next dimension.

It was easy to get swept up in this film. The scenes with Death and the woman as well as the “Story of the Third Light” really broke ground in effects, mood, and depth of subject matter. Destiny has a long and distinguished list of fans; two of the best, Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel, both saw the heights that film could potentially reach in Destiny, and Douglas Fairbanks actually purchased the American rights to the film just so he could delay its opening and mimic its effects for his film, The Thief of Bagdad. But it’s hard to deny that some of the air escaped the balloon in the dissonant and underdeveloped stories within the main story. The locations and sets were given amazing visual flair and it all looked fantastic, and it did have the added benefit of the irresistible Chinese tale, but I think the penetrating vibe of the primary story could have been better complemented by some more thorough story work in the first two.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

One Response to Destiny (1921)

  1. Pingback: The Phantom Carriage (1921) | classixquest

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