Even before Fritz Lang bucked against the boundaries of cut & dry cinema in the early masterworks Metropolis & M, the director pushed the artform into then-unexplored territory in the silent horror Destiny. Released in the wake of the seminal Swedish masterpiece The Phantom Carriage, Destiny (sometimes billed as Behind the Wall or Weary Death) offers yet another striking image of Death as he conducts his business of harvesting expired souls (this time depicted as a passenger in a carriage instead of a driver, oddly enough). The early German expressionism landmark expanded the limitations of film as a medium, even cited by legendary directors like Alfred Hitchcock & Luis Buñuel as proof that cinema had potential & merit as an artform. The film’s ambitious special effects, unconventional storytelling, and morbid mix of death & romance all amount to a one of a kind glimpse into modern art cinema’s humble silent era beginnings.
The most instantly fascinating aspect of Destiny is its image of Death. The grim reaper is very human in this world, known to the town where he sets up shop merely as “the stranger.” Although he does sport the same sunken eyes & hollow cheeks as Death in The Phantom Carriage (and later in The Seventh Seal) he exchanges the now-traditional hooded robe for a fairly conventional brimmed hat. “The stranger” leases property next to a small town graveyard & erects a massive wall with no perceptible entrance, thoroughly confusing the spooked townspeople who are his new neighbors (but not enough for them to turn down his gold). A young woman uncovers “the stranger’s” secret when she witnesses a procession of bodyless souls entering through his wall, her missing/dead fiancee among them. The woman begs for her fiancee’s life after wrongfully infiltrating Death’s realm & he tells her tree tales of tragic romance in which Death conquers Love as part of their negotiation. What’s most noteworthy here is that while “the stranger” has no qualms ending a baby’s life in a brutally casual manner as one of his duties, he is far from the heartless mercenary of Bergman’s uncaring Death. As “the stranger” puts it himself, “Believe me, my task is hard! It’s a curse! I am wary of seeing the sufferings of men and of earning hatred for obeying God.” That’s about as empathetic of a portrayal of Death as you’re likely to find in 1921, The Phantom Carriage included.
Unfortunately, this darkly surreal framing device proves to be far more interesting than any of the three tales of Death conquering Love “the stranger” tells as the film’s meat & potatoes. Destiny‘s depictions of doomed romance in ancient Persia, China, and Italy feel exceedingly conventional in juxtaposition with the bizarre introduction of “the stranger” & his “realm”. Even when the individual stories fail to excite, however, the film remains a grand achievement in special effects & set design. By the time the third tale hits the screen it’s obvious that Lang was largely interested in showing off technique & not necessarily in telling a worthwhile story (or four). Early visual accomplishments in Destiny involve massive hand-built sets (most significantly the slender, stunning staircases & candles of “the stranger’s realm”) and maybe an occasional detail like a pint of beer transforming into an hourglass, but by the end the film devolves into literal parlor tricks & cinema magic showboating.
Lang more than earns those victory laps, though, considering how advanced the camera trickery plays in light of its release date & the artistic heights he’d later push those techniques to in Metropolis. It also helps that the film’s conclusion returns to “the stranger’s” negotiations with the young would-be widow, a scenario that continually sours despite the woman learning over the course of three tales that she can and will not win. Destiny can be striking in its visual accomplishments & individual moments of brutality, but what really stood out to me is that the film’s message is something like “Love does not conquer Death. Death always prevails.” It’s a lesson made even stronger by the depiction of Death as a sympathetic soul (or lack thereof), something you don’t see often even in a modern context, except maybe in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.