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 Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Also known as: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Germany)
Release Date: February 26th, 1920 (Germany)
Directed by: Robert Wiene
Written by: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer
Music by: Giuseppe Becce
Cast: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Fehér, Lil Dagover, Hans Twardowski

Decla-Bioscop, 74 Minutes

das-cabinet-des-dr-caligariReview:

Few movies can illicit as many feelings and emotions without the use of sound as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. While I love many films of the silent era, especially the German Expressionist pictures of that time, none of them quite capture my attention and imagination in the way that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has.

The film came out between the two World Wars, wedged between the loss and destruction of the Great War and the rise of Nazi Germany. Needless to say, it was one of the darkest and precarious eras in European history. The film reflects the state of life in that time and it exists as an allegory to the war-like authority of the state and the abuse of the common man, manipulated by a greater power into committing heinous acts that serve the sinister master.

Was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari somewhat prophetic? Scholars have debated that for decades. In fact, there are several books and a documentary about it.

As a film, outside of its apparent political influence, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a superior work of art. It is meticulous in its design and execution. It is one of the most haunting and well-acted silent films ever made.

The real standout of the film is the talent of Conrad Veidt, who played the hypnotically controlled somnambulist killer Cesare. His motion, his facial expressions and his aura of dread makes him one of the greatest horror characters in the history of cinema. In the silent era, he is only really rivaled by Count Orlok (played by Max Schreck) in 1922’s Nosferatu and Lon Chaney in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera.

Werner Krauss also created a very effective and scary presence as the title character, Dr. Caligari. He was large and brooding and carried a strong sense of authority with him, especially when the reality of his character is revealed in a great twist ending.

Lil Dagover was beautiful and almost angelic as the apple of everyone’s eye. She had a grace and frailty that made her feel like a sole delicate flower on the verge of getting torn apart in the oncoming storm.

Apart from the acting, the set design was also marvelous. The surreal German Expressionist vibe takes over the film and makes it feel like a nightmare sequence, which is the intention. It is effective while creating a contemporary dark fantasy setting that many filmmakers have tried to emulate for generations with none of them coming close to the magic of this film’s set design and cinematography.

There are many great motion pictures from the silent film era. None of them, however, match the storytelling, aesthetic and overall quality of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. While F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is also a great silent classic that many consider the best of the best, it still falls behind Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Plus, this film also benefits from being its own unique story where Murnau’s masterpiece is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Rating: 10/10