Destiny (1921)

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(Image via New on Netflix)

A young couple is traveling through the country by carriage when they pick up a hitchhiker. The man is odd, dressed in all black and having a strange aura about him. They’re suspicious of him, but what they don’t know is that the stranger is none other than Death.

Unfortunately for them, Death has no plans to leave town. He soon purchases a plot of land near the cemetery, building a giant wall around it.

It should be easy enough to avoid a man living behind an enormous wall, but the couple encounter Death again at the local pub. And when the young woman becomes distracted, her fiance and Death disappear.

There’s only one place she can go: Death’s cemetery-adjacent fortress. Upon arriving, she sees ghosts walking through the wall. This could have easily scared her away, but she instead chooses to confront Death, who gives her three chances to bring her fiance back to life.

Destiny was written and directed by Fritz Lang. A more literal translation of the original German title is sometimes used: Weary Death.

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The souls of the dead make the trek to Death’s door. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

This film fascinates me in the same way I was fascinated by 1949’s OrphéeIt offers a unique, engrossing exploration of life, death, and the in-between.

Lang’s vision of the grim reaper is amazing: black hat, long black coat, dark circles enveloping the eyes, sunken cheeks. And his cane has a little skeleton on it! How perfectly ominous! The entire film is aesthetically pleasing and incredibly atmospheric, as Lang’s films usually are.

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If you’re into wearing obscure movie references for Halloween, Lang’s version of Death would make for a fantastic costume! (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

A gaggle of talented cinematographers are credited: Fritz Arno Wagner, Erich Nitzschmann, and Herman Saalfrank. Wagner is probably the best-known of the bunch, the eye behind the equally-impressive Nosferatu (1922) and M (1931).

Verse is used to give structure to the story, the film broken into six segments. I wish I could read the original German, but even in translated subtitles, these poetically spooky transitions are great.

Verses three through five share the stories of three “candles.” The young woman must try to stop them from losing their flame, in order to save her fiance from death. Each “candle” takes place in a different region and era, set respectively in the Middle East, Italy, and the Chinese Empire. (Fun fact: Costumes for the Chinese Empire segment were loaned to the production from a museum!)

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The town is set ablaze during one of the young woman’s quests to save her fiance. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

The sixth verse may be my favorite. It’s certainly the most grim, the young woman having to basically choose someone to kill — a soul for a soul, in exchange for her fiance, after failing to keep any of the three candles lit.

Lil Dagover gives a fine performance in the role of the young woman seeking to save her fiance, and Bernhard Goetze is fantastic as Death. Additionally, the film features impressive effects (a flying carpet, plenty of ghosts and spirits, etc.).

All in all, Destiny is a pretty great watch. It offers a whole lot of visual appeal, an interesting story, and a fascinating journey for its main character. Recommended.

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