Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Der müde Tod

Another one where any caption would be wasted…

It was Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite film. It inspired Luis Buñuel to become a filmmaker. And, unless you’re a dedicated silent film buff, I’ll bet you’ve never even heard of it.

I refer to Fritz Lang’s 1921 masterpiece, Der müde Tod, known where English is spoken as Destiny. “Weary Death” is a much better title, but if you’re planning to buy or rent this one, look under the English name. And, thank all the cinematic gods, you can buy or rent it, because Destiny has survived the ravages of time intact and reasonably pristine. Since its story is told with the utter simplicity of a folktale, it has survived changes in taste as well.

If supernatural romance is your thing—and I’m not just talking to you little gothgirls or Twilight fans, but also to anyone of my generation who used to stay up late to catch the 1947 The Ghost and Mrs. Muir or Portrait of Jennie—then Destiny is for you.

And, gentlemen, before you run for the exits, consider my opening lines. Hitchcock’s favorite film. Buñuel’s inspiration. Sure you don’t want to stick around and find out why? And were you at all impressed by Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, by the way? You were? I thought so. Sit down.

Somewhere in a folktale Europe, a coach rattles along a dusty highway. Into the road walks a gaunt man with burning eyes, who raises his staff in a commanding gesture. The coach stops. The man steps inside. The other passengers—a young peasant couple, obviously very much in love—regard the stranger uneasily.


 We see next a little village. We meet its mayor and other authorities, and then we see the village gravedigger, hard at work. Looking up he sees the gaunt stranger, who asks him whether the property adjoining the graveyard is for sale. When the gravedigger answers that the village council has reserved the land for a future extension of the cemetery, the stranger goes off to see the mayor about buying the land anyway. The mayor, reluctant, asks why the stranger could possibly want the land. The stranger answers that he wishes to make himself a garden where he may rest, since he is weary of traveling. He is willing to pay a fabulous sum in gold, and so the land is deeded over to him. The villagers are dismayed, however, when the man puts up a high wall completely enclosing the plot of land. No one can find an entrance or exit anywhere, though its builder can apparently come and go inside at will.

This wall, by the way, is one of the first great images in the film. It bewilders the eye. It appears to be a random collection of stones, but in certain shots you would think it was semi-transparent and you could almost glimpse something beyond… in other shots there seem to be patterns in the stones, symbols that you almost recognize. And yet I’d swear no cinematic effects were used. Just a few marks in plasterwork, creatively presented with light and shadow. The essence of brilliant illusion.

The young lovers arrive at the village inn, and order refreshment. The lady of the house, charmed by them, brings them a sort of honeymoon goblet from which they must both drink at the same time. After some giggling and spillage they manage, but the mood is shattered when the gaunt stranger sits down at their table uninvited. He solemnly toasts them with a glass of beer, which a moment later appears to have turned into an hourglass. The maiden is terrified. The honeymoon goblet falls and breaks. The lady of the house takes the girl into the kitchen until she can calm down a bit. When the girl returns to the front room, however, she finds the table deserted. Not especially frightened at first, she runs out, asking whether anyone has seen her young man, and is told by several witnesses that he walked away with the gaunt stranger. Her search becomes more and more desperate; by nightfall she is weeping alone by the high wall when she sees a procession of specters walking toward her. They are not presented in any horrific way, but among them is her lover. She watches, terrified, as they pass one by one through the wall and vanish. She collapses. 

The village apothecary, out digging roots by the light of the moon, finds her and brings her back to his shop, where he bustles off to make her a nice cup of tea. She snatches a bottle of poison from the apothecary’s shelf and is about to drink when—

She’s suddenly on a staircase ascending into formless brightness. The gaunt stranger meets her there, gently asking why she has come when it isn’t her time. She begs to have her lover returned, and the stranger explains that isn’t possible; his allotted time has ended. The stranger shows her a room full of burning candles. Each is a human life, and each life ends when its flame gutters out. She pleads for any kind of second chance, and the stranger is willing to grant her one. He shows her three candles, each one close to burning out. If she can prevent the deaths of even one of the souls represented by those candles, her wish will be granted.

Now follow the three stories within the main narrative. The first is set in Persia, with a Caliph’s sister trying to save her European lover; the second is set in Venice during the Renaissance, with a noblewoman trying to prevent the murder of her lover by her jealous betrothed; the third is a comic interlude, set in a fairytale China, where the two young assistants of an old magician must escape the emperor’s court. All these are beautifully filmed and well acted. Look for the always-formidable Rudolf Klein-Rogge as a powerful Venetian lord, summoning his lackeys with a couple of negligent hand gestures, exactly like a modern mafia don snapping his fingers.

In its ending the film returns to the perfect rhythms of an old fairy tale, and that’s all I’ll say to avoid spoilers. But oh, how I’d love to see what Guillermo del Toro could do with a remake, remembering the gravity and hallucinatory quality of Pan’s Labyrinth.

Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was impressed enough with Destiny to buy the American distribution rights; he then withheld the film from the American market until after his own The Thief of Bagdad had completed its theatrical run. The irony is that there is nothing especially fairytale or Arabian-Nightsish about the Persian sequence in Destiny. Watch it, and see if you don’t agree. Oddly enough, I couldn’t find any evidence that Kino International has released a restoration on Destiny, but until and unless they do, you’ll still be well served by the release available from Image Entertainment—nice crisp print, good musical score. No extras whatsover, unfortunately, and they would be particularly welcome. 

Meanwhile… anybody out there got Guillermo de Toro’s phone number? Email address? Anything?

Kage Baker is a science fiction writer and blogger for Tor. Her recent short story, Caverns of Mystery, is currently shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award.



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