Destiny (1921) Der müde Tod

© 2012 William Ahearn

Known in the US as “Destiny” and as “Three Lights” in France, “Der müde Tod” (“Weary Death”) became Fritz Lang’s breakout film. The story often told about the film — the source being Lang, told decades after the fact — is that it didn’t do well in Germany and then ecstatic reviews from London and Paris caused German moviegoers and critics to have another look. The truth seems to be that Lang was — once again — adding a bit of drama to his own back-story.

The 1921 German reviews are excellent as Berliner Börsen-Zeitung stated: “Fritz Lang, who signs as author and director, has achieved the ultimate . . .. ‘Der müde Tod’ is a mood painting which has never succeeded better in film.” Der Kinematograph wrote: “[Lang and company] have created in rare harmony a work which produced deep inner feelings and an almost religious mood.” Neues Wiener Tageblatt (Vienna) said: “Fritz Lang must have created this film to prove that all the talk of the cinema being a means of expression is not without foundation. [‘Der müde Tod’] is the expression of the romanticism of our century.”

The reviews from Paris and London were ecstatic. In Le Petit Journal in 1922: “At the end of the season of 1922 we can only say that for us Parisians the strongest impressions of the cinema year have been found in . . . ‘Der müde Tod’ by Fritz Lang.” The Spectator (London) wrote in 1924: “‘Destiny’ is one of the most original and impressive films that have ever been made.”

The use of “original” and “impressive” isn’t hyperbole as there is a depth in Lang’s vision that isn’t present in the earlier films. In this film Lang goes far beyond textures and close-ups to manipulate the film itself with special effects. Those effects were so impressive that Douglas Fairbanks bought the US distribution rights to keep “Destiny” from playing in the US until Fairbanks finished “The Thief of Baghdad” that copied and then improved upon those effects. “Naturally,” Lang once said, “having more money and technical possibilities, [Fairbanks] improved on them tremendously.” This distribution hi-jacking was typical of the unfair (some say abusive) relationship that Hollywood maintained with the German film studios, as Lang would find out when he finally fled Germany.

Pared to the bone, the story is of a young couple that moves to a small town and there Death in a somewhat human form takes the man. The woman (Lil Dagover) pleads with Death (Bernhard Goetzke) to return her lover (Walter Janssen) and Death offers her three chances to save a life and if she succeeds, she’ll be reunited with her lover.

The first adventure is set in the world of the Arabian Nights. Eisner notes it is an “adventure story with its chases, disguises, suspense and exoticism [that] recalls ‘The Spiders’.” This may be a story of weary death and fate, yet Lang is clearly having fun with the woman’s attempts to save her lover and using pulp or fairy tale settings for the settings.

The second adventure is set in ancient Venice and this is a dark and more somber tale, taking place in the shadows as much as in the light. Far from being expressionism, Lotte Eisner in The Haunted Screen traces the influence to Max Reinhardt and Gothic influences. Although Reinhardt remained mainly in the theatre, his influence on German filmmaking was enormous.

Then again, Barry Salt states in his essay From Caligari to Who? in Sight and Sound (1979), and paraphrased by Thomas Elsaesser, “that the particular lighting that Eisner traces in German cinema and attributes to the influence of Max Reinhardt can be found much earlier in American films.”

Putting Lang’s film in context becomes on an interesting problem when it becomes clear that the Weimar era movies may be the most misunderstood group of films due to the selective misinterpretations that have been applied to it. This will become clearer as we move through Lang’s career and see how the distortions of the Weimar films enter the discussion.


It is the third adventure that is central to understanding Lang and where he is at his most eclectic. It is also the section where Lang uses special effects in the flying horse, the flying carpet and the snaking letter that Fairbanks would copy. Mixing exotica with expressionism that inspired Eisner to write “in Lang’s third story . . . the parody of Expressionism has become an integral part of the plot itself.” Lang kept a distance – even a disregard – for expressionism and it will become clearer as his career progresses that his use of expressionism is always calculated and always for effect.

As Thomas Elsaesser puts it in Weimar Cinema and After: “The German cinema of the Weimar Republic is often, but wrongly identified with Expressionism.” What will become clear is that what most people think of as expressionism is actually other styles used by the filmmakers of the Weimar era.

German expressionism isn’t a genre as much as it is a movement that began in the late 1890s and incorporated paintings, plays, novels and other media. Expressionism didn’t start showing up in films until 1913 or so and is sometimes considered a response to World War I when in fact its roots started much earlier and many critics describe the movement as a response to Impressionism. (It should also be pointed out that Germany had been cut off by France, the US and other countries and began in earnest during this time – circa 1913 – to produce more films for home front consumers.) The real challenge in recognizing expressionism is separating it from the rest of German cinema.

After World War I ended, there were over 1,000 film companies in Germany that were either fly-by-night studios or thriving studios such as Decla-Bioskop, Joe May Films and others as well as the government-created UFA. Many of these movies have been lost – some estimate the figure at 80% – due to the realities of nitrate-based film and numerous other reasons. These films followed, created or mimicked various genres and it usually isn’t German expressionism films that reflect disillusionment following World War I.

Anton Kaes – who disputes Kracauer’s conclusions of the films of this era leading to the rise of the Nazis – in Shell Shock Cinema makes the case that the psychology and physiology of the shell-shocked in the war had created the German film style: “Although Lang never depicted World War I explicitly, his German films are filled with characters who suffer from various kinds and degrees of ‘nervous disorders’” and “Der müd Tod” is “an allegory of the war’s ravishing effect on the home front, [as] Death abducts a young man from the side of a young woman. Weary of his task, Death looks on as the woman sacrifices herself to be reunited with her dead fiancé.”

In Weimar Cinema and After, author Thomas Elsaesser cites HH Wollenberg’s Fifty Years of German Films: “There is a general contention abroad that German studios of the ‘classic’ period between 1920 – 1930 preferred to use macabre themes and that this obviously had its psychological basis in the mentality of the Germans. I have tried to show [in Fifty Years of German Films] that this view is entirely wrong. The probable reason for it is that only a very few films out of the great mass of German productions are still being shown to students of the cinema today. To generalize about all German films, using these outstanding works as proof, is certainly a mistake. The vast majority of films never survived the one season for which they were intended.”

With 80% of the films of the Weimar era destroyed and many of the surviving films being ignored, it puts in perspective the agendas of Lotte Eisner, Siegfried Kracauer and Anton Kaes in that while these macabre or death-obsessed films certainly existed, they may not be as representational of the German postwar mindset as readers have been led to believe. To boot, it is almost delusional to think that films – from whatever culture – present a mindset of any kind in the greater population. 

The word ‘Expressionist,” Lotte Eisner wrote in The Haunted Screen, “is commonly applied to every German film of the so-called ‘classical’ period. But it is surely not necessary to insist yet again that certain chiaroscuro effects so often thought Expressionist, existed long before ‘Caligari’; and that [“Caligari”], contrary to what many people seem to think, was hardly the first film of value to be made in Germany.”

This is critical to understanding Fritz Lang, specifically, and German films of the period, generally. Expressionism was a short-lived experiment of art-meets-film of which there are precious few “true” examples. (One noted author put the figure at seven.) It prompted a lot of press and numerous academic articles and yet – according to The Rise of The America Film by Lewis Jacob – “Caligari” – “apart from giving rise to stray imitations” – never seriously influenced US or French cinema. In From Caligari To Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer notes that “Caligari” “stood out lonely, like a monolith.” Salt in his Sight and Sound (via Elsaesser) essay demonstrates that of the films generally listed as “Expressionist,” only very few show actual features of expressionist style, and [Salt] also avers that any ideological readings of the films is so selective as to remain unconvincing.”

“Der müde Tod” is the Rosetta stone of understanding Lang and his singular vision and Lang has stated numerous times that “I’m always classified as an expressionist, but I think I belong to the realists.” In a 1968 interview he stated, “One cannot live through a period without taking some of it in. I don’t know the difference between an expressionist and a non-expressionist mise-en-scène. I produce what I feel.” In “Der müd Tode,” Lang uses expressionist styles in one episode and that use can be considered parody. This same use of expressionism will show up in other films.

Once again we have a character facing their destiny and in this film as in many others there is no struggle to save themselves. The Woman – as she is named in the script – struggles for her lover and yet in the end crosses willingly to the other side having failed in her missions. This passive acceptance of death appears numerous times in the films of Fritz Lang.

There’s a story that tells how Thea von Harbou wrote “Der müde Tod” for Lang after Joe May snatched “Das indische Grabmal” away. The plot of “Der müde Tod” is the summation of Lang’s previous films that deal with adventure and exotica with the added element of afterlife and destiny or fate. When the films are taken in order what emerges is not so much a realist or an expressionist but an eclectic director who will use whatever – various styles, special effects – to get what the film needs in order to be effective. What Lang created this time around was a staggering leap from his previous work not only in content and style, but also in the actual visuals of the film itself.

There is another dynamic that becomes apparent here and it is the ascendancy of von Harbou as what could be described as the dominant force behind the collaboration. Lang didn’t or wouldn’t work with another writer until after he left Germany and it would be von Harbou’s scripts – and only von Harbou’s scripts – that became the basis of the Lang legend. While we have Lang – who will prove to be a remarkably unreliable witness to his own career – relating the particulars of how the films came to be, von Harbou’s memories are lost somewhere in the rubble of postwar Berlin.

Cast: Bernhard Goetzke, Lil Dagover, Walter Janssen, Hans Sternberg, Carl Rückert, Max Adalbert, Wilhelm Diegelmann, Erich Pabst, Karl Platen, Hermann Picha, Paul Rehkopt, Max Pfeiffer, Georg John, Lydia Potechina, Grete Berger, Rudolph Klein-Rogge, Eduard von Winterstein, Erika Unruh, Lothar Mütel, Edgar Pauly, Lina Paulsen, Levis Brody, Karl Huszar, Paul Bienfeld, Paul Neumann.

Directed by Fritz Lang. Produced by Erich Pommer for Decla-Bioscop. Script by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou. Set design by Hermann Warm, Robert Herlth, and Walter Röhrig. Lighting by Robert Hegewald. Cinematography by Erich Nietzschmann, Fritz Arno Wagner and Hermann Saalfrank.  Running time: 105 minutes

Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler