At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

DESTINY [DER MUDE TOD] (KINO/Lorber)

By • Aug 17th, 2016 •

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BluRay review by Roy Frumkes

In the silent period, Fritz Lang was often a better director of film than he was of actors.
Lil Dagover, who also worked with F.W. Murnau (TARTUFFE, 1925), countless other filmmakers, and appeared in over 130 films, neither looks great nor acts memorably here. She comes across like an alumni of the pop-eyed school of over-emoting, and this TALES OF HOFFMANN-like portmanteau, in which she plays a part in each ill-fated story, as well as in the wrap-around, needed her to be more anchored. She, and Death (Bernhard Goetzke) are the main characters, she going through several permutations, he only one, a somber, resolved but conflicted ‘Death’. They play a little game to see if she can win back her fiance who death has claimed, a story not unlike Ingmar Bergman’s much later, and probably DESTINY-inspired portrayal of Death as a chess aficionado in THE SEVENTH SEAL.

As in all DVD-to-BluRay reviews, I begin by comparing the older disc with the newer one. But after 15 minutes I gave up on that approach because there’s no comparison. This new mastering – even though many of the materials come from as near (and obviously accessible previously) as The Museum of Modern Art – is far superior to the DVD. In that version, at times, you can’t even make out Death’s face. And the tinting here is a fascinating, purer use of the device, feeling almost as if the image was laid over a light box, creating rich, opaque sheens (check out the shot at 45:40). There are even a few examples of tinting and toning within the same shots, one of which is unsuccessful, but a later one is quite beautiful. A supplemental sidebar on the BluRay compares many of the shots between the two releases. This may be as good as the film gets, since the original negative resided in the vaults at UFA, Germany’s great film studio which sustained direct hits during the Allied bombing of WWII. Whereas Chaplin’s THE KID, made the same year, looks sharp and new, without the original negative to work from, the Murnau Restoration Society has had to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Bunuel have famously paid homage to this film, so it is historically a key piece in the jigsaw puzzle of cinematic influences from the silent days which helped set the aesthetic paths of Lang’s peers. D.W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE may have come first, with it’s omnibus structure, but it didn’t plumb the melancholy possibilities of a human having an intimate relationship with Death. The ubiquitous Tim Lucas, in his excellent, point-expansive commentary, pulls insights and connections from everywhere in cinema’s vast universe, even from his beloved Mario Bava (a unique use of round set design).

I’m fascinated that in this morbid excursion in which the female protagonist tries thrice to save her fiancé from death, the third story is the one that Lang & Van Harbou chose to be light and humorous. Usually the funny story, which I almost never enjoy, falls in the middle – eg. the two stupid golf partners in the otherwise iconic DEAD OF NIGHT (1945). The placement of DON’s lame story wouldn’t have worked in any case, but stuck in the middle, at least viewers had time to get the taste out of their mouths.

I despise over-acting, and the caricatured performance, of the town officials, for example, keep me distanced from the film to a degree. These over-the-top types are analogous of John Ford’s embarrassing fight scene shenanigans within otherwise great films such as THE SEARCHERS. Beyond these clichés of the time, which Lang wasn’t able to surmount, his portrait of a threatening, weary personification of Death is as powerful today, possibly, as it was back in the day.

I also liked the wonderful device of having the inter-titles accompanying each story be calligraphically different in order to reflect the culture in which the story takes place.

These German classic restorations, which KINO has the franchise rights to, are always awaited with fingers crossed. Occasionally one is a dud, like the BluRay of NOSFERATU, which wasn’t as good as the DVD (although considering that film’s tragic history, we’re lucky that it exists in any form). Whereas the recent restoration of THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI looked so pristine, it might have been shot within the past few years. It was a restoration miracle. DESTINY falls in between in terms of quality, but in terms of being an improvement over pre-existing DVD material, it is a major advance.

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