This eye-popping restoration of Fritz Lang's Destiny (Dur müd Tod), set to a newly composed orchestral score by Cornelius Schwehr was unveiled, to no little fanfare, at Berlinale 2016. The Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation and its partners spent more than a year restoring the original colours and intertitles to a film that, since its 1921 heyday, had faded and degraded almost beyond recognition.
Now jollied along by the 70-strong Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin, its key horrors and delights – an owl in the moonlight, a midget presiding over a cockfight, a secret lover buried alive – are all the more searing.
Drawing on folklore, Lang and his screenwriting partner Thea von Harbou, fashion a portrait of Weary Death, to use the film's original German title. A young woman (Lil Dagover) confronts the personification of Death (the unnerving Bernhard Goetzke), so that she might beg for the life of her fiancé (Walter Janssen). "Love is more powerful than death," pleads the plucky heroine.
Death, who is worn by his duties, outlines three romantic tragedies and makes a deal with the grieving girl: if she can prevent the death of the lovers in any one of the episodes, she will be reunited with her own love. The three tales of star-crossed romance transport us to the Middle East, Quattrocento Venice, and imperial China. Weimar cinema stars Dagover (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) and Goetzke play multiple role against fascinating Expressionist tableaux.
Thus, an army of ghosts pass through a strange, forbidding wall. Death’s lair is a forest of improbably tall candles, each one representing a human life. A magician rides a magic carpet to the Emperor’s palace, where he conjures a miniature army between his feet. The magician’s wronged assistant transforms her master into a human cactus and the Emperor’s guards into swine.
These indelible images, still startling almost a century after they were shot, made a "special impression" on Alfred Hitchcock, on François Truffaut, on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and on Luis Buñuel, who drew heavily on Lang's early masterpiece for Un Chien Andalou.
The poetic script ("She seeks her love in all the lanes, She roams beyond the town, Until presentiments of doom, Are coursing through her veins") marks von Harbou's second collaboration with Lang. She would go on to write Metropolis, M, and The Testament of Dr Mabuse, before she and Lang divorced in 1933, primarily due to her support for the Nazi regime. Years after her death, Lang directed The Indian Tomb, an adaptation of one of her novels. Perhaps love really is more powerful than death.