Film Review: Destiny (1921)

Also known as: Der müde Tod (original German title), The Weary Death (literal English title), Between Worlds, Between Two Worlds, Beyond the Wall (alternative titles)
Release Date: October 6th, 1921 (Berlin premiere)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang
Cast: Lil Dagover, Walter Janssen, Bernhard Goetzke, Rudolf Klein-Rogge

Decla-Bioscop AG, 97 Minutes, 105 Minutes (extended), 94 Minutes (2016 restoration)

Review:

“You dread, awful cactus, you!” – Judge Maedchen

Destiny is a really intriguing motion picture. It’s also the earliest Fritz Lang movie that I’ve seen and that guy is hands down, one of the greatest filmmakers that ever lived, who made masterpieces from the silent era in Germany to his film-noir work in America, a few decades later.

I don’t put this on the same level as his masterpieces like MetropolisM, Scarlet Street and The Big Heat but it’s still a superb picture for its time and it shows a guy that worked within the very expressive and surreal German Expressionist style but also had a more realistic grittiness than what was the norm.

Destiny is a story about a loving couple. They pickup a hitchhiker who is actually Death. Shortly after that, Death purchases some land nearby and builds a gigantic, ominous wall near the town’s cemetery. When the couple meets him again, in a local tavern, the man disappears. The woman, later sobbing in front of the mysterious wall is confronted by a group of ghosts that walk towards her and then disappear into the wall behind her. Putting two-and-two together, the woman confronts Death, begging for the return of her lover and thus, finds herself on a strange journey where she hopes that her love can conquer Death itself.

If the setup doesn’t sell you on the film, I don’t know what will.

However, the acting is superb and Lil Dagover, this film’s star, shines much brighter in this than she did in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from the previous year.

Additionally, Fritz Lang already showed that he possessed a great eye and an even greater understanding of mise-en-scène. It was his early work in films like this that led to his incredible style being instrumental in the look of the film-noir pictures of the 1940s and 1950s. From the lighting, the use of shadows and having a genuine understanding of contrast and how to properly exploit it on celluloid, Lang was a legitimate master.

Although, I have to give credit to his cinematographers, as well. In this film, he worked with three: Fritz Arno Wagner, Erich Nitzschmann and Hermann Saalfrank.

Wagner should be better known than he is in modern times, as the guy would move on from this movie to work on films like Nosferatu, Lang’s M (one of the best looking films ever made), Spies and well over 100 other visually stunning pictures.

This is a film where everything went right. It pulls you in, looks phenomenal and you feel for these characters. I won’t spoil the ending but it is pretty emotional after going on this journey and seeing this woman risk her own mortality to save the man she loves.

For those strangely complaining that movies don’t have strong female heroes, maybe you should start your search back in 1921.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other early Fritz Lang films, as well as other silent movies from the German Expressionist era.

Film Review: The Mechanical Man (1921)

Also known as: L’uomo meccanico (original Italian title)
Release Date: November, 1921 (Italy)
Directed by: André Deed
Cast: André Deed, Giulia Costa, Gabriel Moreau, Mathilde Lambert

Milano Film, 80 Minutes, 26 Minutes (surviving footage)

Review:

Most of this movie has been lost to the sands of time.

26 minutes have survived and instead of fan made trailers or clips, I put a video featuring all the remaining footage at the bottom of this review.

What gives this film a unique place in motion picture history is that it was one of the very first science fiction movies from Italy and it was the first film in the world to feature a battle between robots.

The entire film was considered lost for decades but some reels of the Portugese version were found. These were eventually combined into the 26 minute cut that can be seen today.

This film’s director (and lead actor) had experience in slapstick comedy, so he brought that into this picture. Now his skills aren’t quite on the level of the greats like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton but he still brought a certain energy to the production.

The story revolves around a scientist who has made a remote control robot. This robot, as would become a sci-fi trope, possessed superhuman strength and speed. Some criminals end up killing the scientist in an effort to steal his robot making secrets. They are caught but eventually, the gang leader gets out and kidnaps the scientist’s niece, forcing her to give up the blueprints. The robot is then used for crime and even commits murder. However, the scientist’s brother creates a second robot to face off with the now evil one. The big robot battle takes place in an opera house.

While the film isn’t superb, I like it a lot because of the premise, which was pretty far ahead of its time. Also, the special effects for 1921 are top notch. For this era, this really is a blockbuster.

Nowadays, this movie is in the public domain. So you can easily find it online (see the video below) or find cheap copies of it on DVD.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other silent films like 1922’s The Headless Horseman, 1910’s Frankenstein and 1918’s The Ghost of Slumber Mountain.

Film Review: The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Also known as: Körkarlen (original Swedish title), The Phantom Chariot, The Stroke of Midnight, Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness (alternate English titles)
Release Date: January 1st, 1921 (Sweden)
Directed by: Victor Sjöström
Written by: Victor Sjöström
Based on: Körkarlen by Selma Lagerlöf
Music by: Mattie Bye (1998 restoration)
Cast: Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg

AB Svensk Filmindustri, 104 Minutes

Review:

“Don’t fret over those poor souls now, Sister Edit. You’ve done enough for them.” – Maria

I love silent era horror films, especially German Expressionist films. While this isn’t German, the Swedes created something that feels right at home alongside films like NosferatuThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Golem.

Körkarlen or The Phantom Carriage, as it’s called in English, has a real cinematic magic to it. It also isn’t quite horror, even though it features the embodiment of Death. Mostly, it is just dark and creepy. It’s also enchanting and mesmerizing.

What works most for this film is the atmosphere. It’s gloomy but it’s comforting in a strange way. The special effects are really good for the time and they hold up quite well for a picture as old as this.

I love the look of Death and his carriage and the symbolism that is littered throughout the film in regards to mortality and life.

The story is similar to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol but without it being a Christmas story. It follows a man, as he travels through his past with Death at his side.

If you like silent era horror pictures, then you’ll probably love this. It’s a dark fairytale that wraps you up in its magic and doesn’t let go until the 104 minute carriage ride is over.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: a lot of the German Expressionist horror of the time and I actually watched this back to back with 1932’s Vampyr, which flowed nicely with it.

Film Review: The Idle Class (1921)

Also known as: Vanity Fair (alternate title)
Release Date: September 25th, 1921
Directed by: Charles Chaplin
Written by: Charles Chaplin
Music by: Johnnie von Haines (1969), Charles Chaplin (original)
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Henry Bergman, Mack Swain

Charles Chaplin Productions, First National, 32 Minutes

Review:

“I will occupy other rooms until you stop drinking.” – Edna, Neglected Wife

I had never seen this short by Charlie Chaplin until now. He has so many films and seeing them all is a big feat. Well, seeing the ones that have survived and not been lost to time.

I had no idea that this had a bunch of golf gags in it, which was really amusing and cool to see done in the Chaplin style.

There are a lot of gags and stunts that are incredible to watch, especially today when most of these stunts would be achieved by using CGI or green screens. This almost plays like a 1920s Caddyshack. Granted, there isn’t a gopher. But come to think of it, Chaplin versus the famous gopher would have been comedy gold.

Anyway, the biggest narrative focus in this film isn’t golf itself but about Chaplin’s Tramp character crossing paths with the richer class. This isn’t a new shtick for him, as the Tramp often times finds himself in these situations but with Chaplin, it’s the gags that make the movie and this one doesn’t disappoint.

The Idle Class isn’t a classic like City Lights but it is a strong and effective outing for Chaplin that only served to keep propelling his career forward.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: Other Chaplin pictures during his run with First National: A Dog’s LifeShoulder ArmsSunnysideThe KidPay DayThe Pilgrim, etc.