Venice in Film : Destiny (Der müde Tod)

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“Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me…”

Has any director ever had a better decade than Fritz Lang in the 1920s? Der müde Tod (“The Weary Death”, a far better title than the more prosaic “Destiny”) was his first masterpiece in a ten year period that brought us – amongst others – Die Nibelungen, Spies, Metropolis, Dr Mabuse and M. And it’s also a film with a Venetian connection. As we’ll find out, it might be cheating a bit to fit it into a series called “Venice in film”, but nevertheless I think it’s worth a mention.

The plot of Destiny is a simple one : a young couple, riding in a carriage, stop to pick up a stranger who, later that evening, spirits the young man away. Grief-stricken, the woman searches for him and finds that his soul is imprisoned in a walled garden belonging to the stranger who, of course, turns out to be Death. She begs to be reunited with her lover, and Death – perhaps now weary of his work – brings her to a hall full of burning candles. Each one is a human life, he explains, showing her three that have almost flickered out. If she can save one – just one – of those three lives through the power of love, the young man will be restored to her. And this leads us into three short tales, the second of which is set in Venice…

So why, then, are we cheating? Well, quite simply, there’s no actual Venice to be seen. There was no location filming involved and so the Venice we see is one created via Lang’s great art directors Walter Rohrig and Hermann Warm. So we see bridges, canals, a vera da pozzo, a gondola complete with felze, a Lion of St Mark – just enough to create a convincing sense of “Venetianess”. No, it’s not realistic, but that’s not what Lang is trying to do here.

The vignette is perhaps fifteen minutes in length; a dark, almost Shakespearean, love story set during Carnival which (SPOILER for 100 year old film) does not end well. There are a few historical references but they’re a bit confused – there’s a reference to the “Council of Fourteen” instead of the “Council of Ten” for example. No matter. The characters are sketched out quickly and efficiently, the plot is simple but effective and, really, fifteen minutes in Fritz Lang’s Venice is fifteen minutes well spent.

Lil Dagover, the female lead, had a long and distinguished career but is probably best remembered today for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Destiny, however, gives her a far more rewarding part and she’s absolutely terrific here. Further down the cast list is Rudolf Klein-Rogge (who himself had a small role in Caligari), a favourite of Lang’s, who would later feature as the sorcerer-scientist Rotwang in Metropolis and as the eponymous Dr Mabuse. But the film really belongs to the craggy-faced Bernhard Goetzke as Death, in a towering performance that, perhaps, prefigures Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Lang’s direction, aided by Fritz Arno Wagner’s cinematography, is exemplary.

So, should you see it? Well, in my humble opinion, it’s a timeless work of art by one of the great filmmakers of the twentieth century so – yes- absolutely, you should.

But don’t expect too much actual Venice!

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