director Fritz Lang
Recently reading that Luis Buñuel found Fritz Lang’s 1921 film Destiny the inspiration that drove him to cinema, I made the mental note that I had to see it.
I got introduced to German Expressionism in my very first film class at 17, by way of Lang’s own M (1931). It was then that I realized that all my childhood fascination with horror films and the birth of horror films pretty much dovetailed with the German aesthetic in its silent heyday. I’d longed to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) (often cited in those childhood texts as the first horror film of all time rather inaccurately), Nosferatu (1922), The Golem (1920), and Lang’s Metropolis (1927). I had to good luck that my mother took me to see the Lon Chaney silent films The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Though those latter ones aren’t German or Expressionist, I had a yen for these films from a young age.
Destiny is an exemplar of Expressionism while not at all really being a horror film. The film’s main story is the heart of the film: a young bride (Lil Dagover) loses her husband to death, and she goes into the realm of death to try to bring him back. Death is a human figure (the imposing Bernhard Goetze), but he is a monster in deeds only, giving Dagover three chances to save a lover from dying. Her failures in each of the stories leads her to plead with other people to give their lives for her husband. Her final realization, when she saves a baby from a fire, is what allows her to accept her “destiny”.
While it’s not my favorite of Lang’s films or the Expressionist genre, it is a very fine film. I try to take myself back to imagining a 21 year old Buñuel in 1921, encountering real cinema for the first time. It’s little wonder the Surrealists loved cinema so much.