Fritz Lang’s first big hit, with Metropolis just a few short years away, may not be as ingenious or vital as his later works, but it’s still fascinating to watch as a primer on the earliest parts of his career. It’s something of a morality play/parable between a young woman who has recently lost her lover and the embodiment of death, strangely sympathetic and kind here, but it occasionally plays as a bit of a slog. None of this mean it’s still not a noteworthy rediscovery, and one that you should seek out.
Destiny finds Lang telling a triptych of doomed lovers stories, each of them populated by the same core of actors playing dress-up both in elaborate costuming and in racial makeup, wrapped around a “present day,” for 1921, story. A young couple wanders into a small town where Death has bought a large property, walled it up, and ushers in his captives through supernatural means. The young man dies, and the young woman begs with Death for his return to the land of the living. Feeling strangely empathetic to her plight, comparatively to the wider array of cold and clinical portrayals of death in cinema, he offers her a challenge: he will send her to three different locations, if she can save her lover in any of them, he will restore the pair to the living.
Death’s lair is a glorious cinematic vision, like a catholic church turned up to eleven. There’s candles everywhere of varying sizes, each light representing someone living, and the souls of the dead appear in his hands as glowing orbs before becoming a person. In this particular case, it’s a small infant, and we’re quickly shown the grieving mother bending over the child. Death’s weariness in his task is evident, and he seems particularly troubled by the babe’s demise. Bernhard Goetzke’s physical appearance and finely calibrated performance should place him in the pantheon of great silent monsters and fantasy figures in due time. He makes for a rich, mysterious, complicated character, but he’s not the main attraction.
That would be Lil Dagover’s questing lover. She’s adequate but a mere sketch of a thing, and her romance is expository. We get no sense of her true loss or the scope of her passions before being told about them and her gaining this quest/chance. While Goetzke feels relatively modern in his minimalist acting, Dagover is pure silent cinema mugging and too broad pantomime.
Luckily, Lang buries her in sophisticated cinematic magic and an enigmatic atmosphere. It doesn’t entirely compensate for the weaknesses, but it does a fair job of trying to level the field. Destiny transports us from fable-like visions of ancient China and the Middle East to a 15th century Venice where the doomed lovers will continually lose each other death’s predestination. The Chinese segment is the strongest of the three, there’s a magic carpet and some interesting visuals to try to distract from the ick factor of the yellow face and grab-bag of Oriental clichés. Try as Dagover may to change fate, she continually comes up at a loss.
The portent of gloom and decay looms over Destiny, and the eventual reunion of the lovers is a twisted happy ending. Lang’s film is a reminder of the dream-like quality and power of silent film. This one’s not quite a nightmare, but more an unnerving, deeply eerie glimpse into the inevitability of greater forces striking us down.