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Film Reviews

Lang May You Run: Der Müde Tod Reviewed
Matthew Conn , July 14th, 2017 10:38

This week Eureka! released one of expressionist master Fritz Lang's lesser known works. Matthew Conn marvels at one of the legendary director's more strange and difficult films, Der müde Tod

The shadow of Fritz Lang and the wider German Expressionist movement has loomed large over the history of cinema. Due out later this year, Denis Villneueve’s Blade Runner 2049 will take its visual style from Ridley Scott’s vision of a future LA, and his aesthetic drew heavily on Lang’s iconic 1927 film, Metropolis. Lang’s morally ambiguous serial killer story M (1931) has influenced directors from Hitchcock to Friedkin to Fincher and provided one of the blueprints for Film Noir, a genre that Lang would later have a direct hand in after he emigrated to America to escape the Nazis. The hardboiled thrillers that he made in his later period like Scarlett Street (1945), The Big Heat (1953) and While The City Sleeps (1956) are high watermarks of the classic noir period of the 1940s and 50s.

Released in 1921, Der Müde Tod (also known as Destiny although the German title literally means ‘Weary Death’) subtitled ‘A German folk tale told in six verses’ is one of the director’s earlier films, a magical fable about a woman (Lil Dagover) who is desperately seeking to retrieve her fiancée from the realm of the dead presided over by Death (Bernhard Goetzke). In a room full of candles that represent human lives Death tells the woman that she can save her love if she can prevent one of three flickering candles from being extinguished. We are then shown three separate stories, one set in a Middle Eastern city, one in Venice during Carnival and one in China, in each the woman attempts to save a different man (all played by Walter Janssen) all of whom are fated to die.

For a contemporary viewer Der Müde Tod is not Lang’s most accessible work, Metropolis is such an obvious touchstone for many contemporary films and M has a cynical tone that still feels strikingly modern, whereas this film is more obviously rooted in the magical whimsy of early fantasy cinema, albeit with a characteristically Langian dark edge. Yet for those with the patience there is much to be admired and enjoyed about this new digital restoration, not least the stunning image quality. Few of Lang’s early films are available in any watchable version, this has been restored with the original sumptuous colour tints and it is hard to imagine that it looked much better when it was first shown to audiences almost a century ago.

Dubbed the ‘Master of Darkness’, few directors have used shadow as boldly or as effectively as Fritz Lang and while Der Müde Tod is perhaps less expressionistic in its visual style than some of his work there are moments that are purely cinematic in the way that only silent films can be. In one extraordinary scene that evokes Carl Dreyer, Death demonstrates to the woman what the candles represent. Cupping his hands around a candle flame he raises his hands and the flame appears to rise away from the wick before turning into a baby in his arms and then disappearing. Lang cuts to a stark image tinted purple, an anguished mother weeping uncontrollably as she cradles her dead child. It is a profoundly moving example of the way narrative can be told through editing and frame composition and a reminder that even crude special effects can achieve wondrous results.

Clearly an inspiration for the character of Death in The Seventh Seal (1957), Bernhard Goetzke, with his extraordinarily angular face and cliff-like brows is a chilling figure but as the ‘Weary Death’ his face shows the profound sadness he has at the nature of his duty (“Believe me my task is heavy! It is a curse!”).

Fate and moral ambiguity run thoughout the director’s oeuvre but in 1921 Lang is less angry, less cynical and indeed less political a filmmaker than the one he would later become. That is not to say that Der müde Tod is flimsy or lightweight, it is a significant and indeed highly personal work from a master filmmaker in the making, a work that is macabre and melancholic, that ponders whether love can be stronger than death and does not entirely reject a hopeful answer.

Der Mude Tod is out as a dual format release from Eureka!