Note: This is the hundred-and-thirteenth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1921 film, DESTINY, directed by Fritz Lang.
Look, it might be a bit of stretch to connect Weezer, my favorite band and famous ’90s alternative rock group, to 1920s German “Expressionist” cinema. But gotdamnit, if someone was going to do it, it’s going to be me. Is Weezer on my mind because of numerous releases and discussion about them once again touching the internet? Am I writing about them perhaps too much lately? Probably! But I swear I’m going somewhere with this.
First, let me explain the subject of this week’s film essay. DESTINY was German director Fritz Lang’s eighth film. Lang would come to be known for his silent epics like METROPOLIS (1927), his early German sound works like M (1931), and his Hollywood career which included films like FURY (1936) and SCARLET STREET (1945). I could consider DESTINY his first “masterwork,” although that probably overblows most any piece of art, let alone this one. It certainly was the first of an incredible run of films that Lang would produce throughout the ’20s. His previous films, specifically the two part THE SPIDERS (1919–20) and HARAKIRI (1919), carried the promise that was really driven home with DESTINY…and of course the later “masterworks.”
Just as a side note, I think part of what makes Lang such an interesting part of his era (besides producing, just, incredible movies) is his singularity in the business. What I mean is that his films, as much as they’ve been labeled as Expressionist through a revisionist lens, don’t really fit into that category. This is something I’ve written about at decent length before and will likely continue to bring up as I address German films of the 1920s. They show up a lot in my favorites. But besides some striking visual moments, which some people seem to conflate with Expressionism, Lang also skewed closer to Romanticism, presenting fantasy with more of a flourish than a jagged edge. DESTINY certainly hews to this theory, and it would culminate in the brilliant DIE NIBELUNGEN films (1924). But then, METROPOLIS comes the closest to the Expressionism label, and that film is Lang’s lasting legacy.
But besides these distinguished artistic sensibilities, Lang stuck around in Germany a bit longer than a lot of his peers. While filmmakers like Ernst Lubitsch popped out to Hollywood in the early 1920s and others like F.W. Murnau followed in the late ’20s, Lang didn’t make his first American film until 1936 (the aforementioned FURY). There isn’t much of a point to be made here, besides Lang’s expressed hatred of Nazism and his fear of their power as an ethnic Jew. It just seems interesting that Lang found some kind of value to staying in Germany, and that value returned when he made his final few films back in Germany/Europe.
These are things I’ll likely address in future film essays, as Lang is one of the prominent filmmakers on my favorites list. He grew up as a Roman Catholic, in spite of his mother’s Jewish heritage; she converted to the faith and raised little Fritz as a follower of Christ. Ultimately, though, he would be an atheist. Lang fought in World War I and, shortly after it ended, he was hired as a writer for Erich Pommer (AKA the most powerful German/European producer throughout the 1920s). This history also associates Lang with the Expressionist movement; the Great War is often cited as an influence on the artistic sensibility. Anyways, he quickly moved into directing and made his first movie, HALBBLUT in 1919. This and his second film, MASTER OF LOVE (1919), stand as Lang’s only lost films. As mentioned, THE SPIDERS and HARAKIRI quickly set him apart (they actually resided more in the realm of the Louis Feuillade serials), but he also made contemporary dramas THE WANDERING IMAGE (1920) and FOUR AROUND A WOMAN (1921) before DESTINY.
And DESTINY was his greatest film yet, as has been mentioned. Have you been wondering how I’m going to connect all this to Weezer? Alright, let me break down some of the lyrics of one of my favorite Weezer songs, “The Angel and the One,” the final track on their 2008 release, RED ALBUM.
It’s not my destiny to be the one that you will lay with
So many reasons why I have to go but want to stay here
Yes, obviously, there’s a connection here between “DESTINY,” the movie, and the word “destiny.” But it’s this sentiment that drives the emotional and cosmic thrust of the film.
Well, eventually, it’s kind of the opposite. Here’s the premise: an unnamed couple (played by Walter Janssen and the inimitable Lil Dagover) in “some time and place” ride in a carriage that picks up a hitchhiker. It’s Death, played by Bernhard Goetzke (to appear in Lang’s DR. MABUSE THE GAMBLER ). The two lovers are spending time in a little town when the male partner disappears. Death has taken him. During this whole time, Death has erected a huge stone wall outside of town, and Dagover’s character comes across it. In a beautiful ghostly display of special effects a la THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921), a string of people walk past her and enter the wall; one of them is Janssen’s character. Dagover begs Death to bring her lover back, and he tells her that if she can save her lover in three different periods of time (represented by three candles), she will return her partner to her.
This set up establishes an episodic film not unlike INTOLERANCE (1916), although the three stories of antiquity are not interwoven, they’re disparate. Unfortunately, two of the three stories make for yellowface; the first takes place in an Arabic nation and the third in China. The second takes place in Italy. In all three, the couple of the frame story are “reincarnated” into tragic lovers with no memory of what happened in the frame story. And in all three stories, greater powers (i.e., dictatorial rulers) keep the lovers apart, and end the man’s life.
This repeat illustration of tragic love in DESTINY drives home the frantic faith of Dagover’s character. She will go to the ends of Earth and time and face danger to return her lover from Death, an unstoppable force. Perhaps at first, she feels it’s not her destiny to be the one who lays with her lover. The many reasons that take her away from him are cosmic and authoritative.
“The Angel and the One” can be seen as a break up song, because of the following lyrics.
There is another love
That I would rather be obeying
But in the context of DESTINY here, Dagover spurns the inevitability of Death and wants to obey the love she feels for her partner. It spans dimensions and time. After she fails to save her lover in every time period, Death gives her one final chance: find a soul to give up their life in the “modern” time and he will restore the male partner. No one in the town agrees, but then a fire starts to consume a building. Dagover rushes in to, ostensibly, sacrifice the one baby still inside. But once there, she knows she can’t take an innocent life, and drive the child’s family into despair. She saves the baby, and offers herself to Death. Dagover and Janssen’s lovers are reunited.
I feel a deeper peace
And that deeper peace is penetrating
Maybe I’ve been listening to the song too much and stretching to connect two things I’ve been enjoying quite a lot lately. But the sonic qualities of “The Angel and the One” also align with DESTINY. There is a sense of darkness that soars into positivity. And Dagover’s faith takes it there. It’s a striking difference, for someone speaking as an innate neurotic Negative Nancy. I saw “The Angel and the One” as a solitary song; the destiny is to be alone. But through the lens of a chance overlap of a single word, the film DESTINY overrode some of my experiences. The lovers have “reached a higher place that no one else can make a claim in.”
DESTINY is not afraid of Death. It illustrates the all-consuming and pervasive sense of love, which is more powerful than mortality and time. Lang tells one of his less cynical stories of humanity (not that all his films are overly negative) with a journey through time, times that feel more fantastical than historically grounded. The frame story setting is never even specified. The Romantic set design and innovative cinematography, led primarily by Fritz Arno Wagner, accomplish this quite effectively.
Who knows. Is it really appropriate to connect Weezer to Lang? All I know is that, somehow, these artists from across time, persuasions, and media were able to impart similar feelings in me. And in fact, one influenced my perception of the other, for the better. “The Angel and the One” and DESTINY leave me with a feeling of melancholic hope, as both take heartbreak through to cosmic revelations. Hopefully I’m somewhere on the upswing of that process. “Peace, shalom” indeed.