It's 1921! There's no MPAA! Heck, that's an American institution. Film was a baby at the time. I will say that there's a bit of old timey racism. If I had to give a scale to the severity of racism, I don't think any of it is meant to be hateful so much as it is ignorant of what is respectful.
DIRECTOR: Fritz Lang
How much do I love Fritz Lang? I'm pretty sure he hasn't let me down yet. I keep going deeper into stuff I don't think I'll like and I always seem to come back pretty happy. Per use, (pronounced "yoozhe") I assigned my students to independently watch a German Expressionist film or something from this era and I always want to do the project too. I like the Expressionists. Maybe its just because they are so to-the-wall formalist, these silent movies are interesting as all get out. Destiny is no exception.
I know I'm not the target market for this movie. This movie was a German movie for people who were steeped in German culture and folklore. This movie borrows heavily from oral tradition because it is an adapted German folktale. Like Shakespeare's audience, I'm sure that the viewers of this film would have had at least a rudimentary understanding of the basic beats of this story. I, however, have never heard of it. Because you, too, are probably not in the know (what if this is where I found out that I'm not well read and fairly uncultured! No!), the story surrounds a recently engaged couple reveling in the joys of engagement. They take the personification of death along on their carriage ride. Death buys some land (this really seems like a side story that is just there for tradition's sake) and the two meet up with him at a bar. Just like the punchline to everyone's favorite premise, Death takes the gentleman and the lady must get him back. Death explains his very nature and offers her an opportunity to get him back if she can prevent three deaths from taking place. I love this idea. It is super cool. I will never encourage a remake of anything, but that's a genuinely nifty idea. The movie jumps around time and space (not like that!) and we get to see three very different cultures. We get a look into the Middle East, a peek at Italy, and a very dated examination of China. One of the things that this period in German film did well was the focus on elaborate sets, especially compared to the Americans' use of very theatrical fakeries. The movie thrives mostly when it relies on its spectacle. I'm not saying that the rest of the movie is flawed, by any means. Rather, it is just the quality of everything I'm seeing (shy of the racial makeup choices that the early 1920s would have provided) is very impressive. There's a certain disbelief that I go in with many silent films. Even The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is only really impressive if I shut part of my brain off. But Destiny looks impressive without any help. I guess I could go across the line for the mise en scene (again, except for the makeup) and looking at the casting choices. The guy who plays Death, Bernhard Goetzke, is impressive as heck. The guy looks like Death. I always thought that must be a bummer, when you look like someone horrifying. I'm watching Patriot season one on Amazon and they address that. Regardless, he fits everything. The image above is one I use in my class when teaching this film. He fits in a dimly lit room illuminated only by candles. That's a very specific look.
I love most that the movie didn't cop out on one thing. The Germans were obsessed with the psychology over the sociology of a movie. The movie examines the nature and, ultimately, the value of death. The three love stories that carry out through the movie are very interesting stories, but they act almost as an anthology for love. I get it, they parallel the couple from the framing device. But these stories are just cool. It is once these stories are over that the real psychology is looked at. SPOILER FOR A MOVIE FROM 1921. Her choice about the value of a life is very interesting. She is given a chance to bring back her love if she can trade a life for a life. I honestly thought that we were going to get the Twilight Zone ending where she is taken to the afterlife and he is brought back. These moments seem obvious, but Lang makes her choices about whose life to take interesting. The end with the fire is great because it is this crescendo to an already pretty epic film. There is one moment where I thought Death was just teaching her a lesson and that he would give back the suitor, but he doesn't. How great is that? The weird thing is that the end of the movie is still kind of happy despite the fact that everyone dies. Perhaps that is the reason why we keep turning an abstract concept as "death" into a proper character with "Death." I can't think of a ton of other emotions outside of Inside Out that personify concepts like that. The odd thing is that we all know Death's personality. (I think the guy from Patriot that I was talking about actually was Death on Supernatural. Weird coincidence...or he's just typecast.) But Death is weirdly comforting in this movie. He doesn't look it and he intentionally never emotes, but he's rarely considered the antagonist in this tale. Rather, he definitely has the vibe as the tool of Heaven and that's an interesting thought. Lang presents death as comforting. He's not the only one. Even as early as this movie is, he's not the first. But the movie sells the concept very well. The deaths in the three anthology pieces are unfair, but they seem to be part of the natural order. (Yes, there's a lot of more murder in the anthology pieces, but it weirdly fits within the narrative.)
I really like when I like a silent movie authentically. Sure, there are things that are uncomfortable, mostly in the Chinese and Middle Eastern sequences. I'm not even sure what is Islamophobic anymore, but the stories are great. The separation of the stories into six songs keeps the story moving, considering that silent films often require a little more investment than the films with their quick cuts today. The special effects are pretty fun and support the narrative well. I don't know if I'd watch the movie again any time soon, but it's only an hour and a half so I never know.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.