Saturday, February 7, 2015

#200: Destiny (Fritz Lang, 1921)

Hey! This is my 200th review! I'm celebrating this milestone the way I celebrate every Saturday morning, by drinking a shitload of coffee and avoiding all pants-wearing until absolutely necessary. To anyone who is a regular, semi-regular, or occasional reader, thanks for taking time out of your busy, sexy lives to read my often sloppy blather about horror, weirdo, and cult movies. To quote Paul Stanley, you people are dynamite. Unlike Paul Stanley, I actually mean it.
Fortunately, this 200th post is about a film made by one of my favorite directors, Fritz Lang. Lang had a pretty amazing career that stretched from 1919 to 1960 (or 1963, if you include his acting role in Godard's Contempt) and saw him master many genres, including horror, science fiction, the suspense thriller, the spy movie, fantasy, film noir, the western, adventure, the war film, the children's movie, drama, and even a musical comedy satirizing materialism and capitalism with songs by Kurt Weill (1938's bizarre and awesome You and Me, which I strongly recommend). Lang had great range and could do innovative work no matter the budget (he worked on glossy, expensive studio films, low-budget cheapies, and a spectrum of productions in between), was one of those rare birds who thrived in both the silent and sound film eras, and was among the ranks of influential Austrian and German directors who wanted no part of Hitler's Europe and emigrated to the United States, fusing the German Expressionist style to classic Hollywood subjects. I've never seen a bad Fritz Lang film. Just look at this list: Destiny, the Dr. Mabuse trilogy, the two Die Nibelungen films, Metropolis, Spies, M, Fury, You and Me, Man Hunt, Scarlet Street, Clash by Night, The Big Heat, Human Desire, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, and The Tiger of Eschnapur. And those are just the ones I've seen. He's got at least another dozen I look forward to seeing.
Destiny is Lang's first major film, and though it's a bit more rough and tumble than the fully developed work he'd be making in just a few years, it has much of his visual skill, wit, and ambition, some striking images, and a story that packs as much into its hour and forty minutes as it possibly can. This is a more optimistic and less paranoid film than many of the Lang films that would follow, as you would expect from its director's youth and its pre-Nazism vintage, but it shares the later films' obsession with a mysterious shadow world that secretly controls a segment of society.
Destiny begins in a sleepy German village where the biggest thing that happens in town is the group of local dignitaries (the mayor, the reverend, the notary, the teacher, and the pharmacist) who gather at the Unicorn Tavern every night to get drunk out of their minds. Something strange has interrupted the usual events. A mysterious stranger has wandered into town and requested to purchase the plot of land next to the cemetery to plant his garden. The dignitaries, who are also the village's council, find the request bizarre and unpleasant and are about to tell the weirdo to take a hike when he produces a hefty sum of money. Like most dignitaries, they let greed dictate policy and happily reverse their position. The stranger then goes about building a large impenetrable wall with no discernible door or gate around his "garden." This isn't some flimsy wall we're talking about here. This is the Led Zeppelin of walls. The dignitaries are flummoxed.
The mysterious stranger, who we quickly learn is Death (Bernhard Goetzke), weary from his solemn duties, has decided to set up shop in the village. His "garden," enclosed by the big-ass wall, is a massive collection of candles, each one representing a living soul. When the candle burns out, your ticket is punched, baby. This is bad news for a young engaged couple, who visit the village and stop in at the Unicorn for a drink. The young man's time is almost up, and Death is there to collect him. This doesn't sit well with the young woman (Lil Dagover) who enters Death's garden of candles and begs him for her lover's life back. Death, who is a much nicer fella than his job description and imposing look may suggest, offers to bring her man back to her if she can stop just one of the next three scheduled deaths from happening. What follows are three stories of doomed love set within the larger story, each one taking place in a separate country (an unnamed Muslim country, Italy, and China), with our cast playing multiple roles. We even get a few parts for Dr. Mabuse himself, Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Things don't go quite as planned, and yet another twist in the trying-to-cheat-Death game takes place in the film's final scenes.
Though the film can be seen as a tragedy, Lang presents a largely warmhearted picture of eternal love and the inherent value of human kindness over cruelty, even if cruelty sometimes prevails. His worldview would get much, much darker. The ambitious, complex story allows Lang to flex many visual skills, and the film's cinematic palette takes in Expressionist and Gothic horror, comedy, romance, swashbuckling adventure, fantasy, and melodrama. Destiny is Lang putting his thumbprint on the movie scene and saying, "I'm someone to reckon with."
Lang wrote Destiny with his major creative collaborator during this early stage of his career, his then-girlfriend Thea von Harbou. (Interestingly, Harbou divorced actor Klein-Rogge that same year to marry Lang, but all three continued to work together for years afterward.) The creative and romantic partnership produced most of his silent and early sound classics, but the end of their relationship was about as bad as you could get. Lang, horrified by the rise to power of the Nazis, decided to get the hell out of Germany. Von Harbou, on the other hand, decided the Nazis were swell. She stayed in Germany and became a collaborator, joining the Nazi party and working on their propaganda films. Lang and Harbou divorced and never spoke to each other again.

No comments: