Here is a folk tale from a place far off in time, a little village nestled in the countryside where two lovers could enjoy their own company and the only thing to worry about was the meddling of the authorities, who would meet regularly to discuss the affairs of the region - but mostly to down a few pints and glasses of wine. Two such lovers are on their way to this village by coach when they happen upon a tall stranger by the wayside, and something about him unsettles them, most likely because he represents the other aspect of life that should be taken into consideration: the inevitability of death, which looms over all even in the happiest moments of the day. But what if it was possible to cheat death?
There then follows a lengthy explanation of why it was not possible to do so, in this, director Fritz Lang's first big success which has been variously claimed down the years as the movie that encouraged Luis Buñuel to take up the camera and as the personal favourite of Alfred Hitchcock. It may have been that fable-like arrangement of the story which captivated them, or to be more precise four stories, the linking one bookending the piece, and three shorter affairs where Death himself (Bernhard Goetzke) illustrates to the female half of the central couple (Lil Dagover) a trio of tales that describe to her why her behaviour is futile in the face of his all-encompassing powers: she just cannot stop him.
Not that Death is arrogant about this ability, indeed he finds the responsibility almost too much to bear, and he miserably goes about his business with the air of a man (or entity) who would give up this existence in a second, but fully realises the onerous duty he must partake in and therefore cannot in all conscience reject it all. This obsession with death, the end of life, may strike you as particularly Germanic, especially in the art of the between the wars republic, but that sense of impending doom was not everywhere in the culture, it was simply most easy to pick up on in light of what we know happened next in works such as Lang's, though you could argue there was definitely something in the air as the oppression began to bite.
For that reason, there remains plenty of interest in the artefacts of Germany around this time as viewers try to pick out clues as to what precisely the filmmakers were aware of and how that channelled into their work, with Lang possibly the most prominent of those artists thanks to enjoying many of the biggest international successes of his age, when Germany was a major player in global entertainment (hence why Hitchcock and many other Brits so admired their productions, and Hollywood regarded them as a definite rival). This effort, also known as Destiny, was a co-creation between Lang and his romantic partner at the time, Thea von Harbou, whose relationship has generated almost as much interest as their films thanks to it starting in suspicious circumstances (Lang's wife apparently committed suicide on hearing of the affair - or did she?) and ending with them parting ways as he fled to America and she stuck around to become a fervent Nazi.
Let's call them an odd couple, but they assuredly struck sparks when they got together creatively, and there was a genuinely strange atmosphere, not to mention a selection of the imagery, in this where you could well understand why it tapped into the prevailing mood of the era, much as special effects-riddled blockbusters do in the twenty-first century. They tend not to wear their heartfelt themes so much on their sleeves, which renders watching the death-obsessed yarn here somewhat alien in a modern context, unless you appreciate a certain Gothic diversion in which case you would likely respond, as many have down the years, to it much as better known entertainments such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (which starred Dagover, one of Adolf Hitler's favourite actresses) or Nosferatu have their followers well past so many of their contemporaries. The fact that the Dagover character is shown over an over through the medium of similarly fantastical fairy tales the harsh truth of everyone's demise merely lent this a grim weight, no matter it ending on a half-upbeat note.
[Eureka's Blu-ray sports the restored print, running around a hundred minutes, and has a commentary from Tim Lucas and video essay as extras, plus a special booklet.]
Tyrannical, monocle-sporting, Austrian-born director who first became established in Germany, significantly due to his second wife Thea von Harbou who wrote many of his scripts for him including famous silents Dr Mabuse the Gambler, the two-part Die Niebelungen, revolutionary sci-fi Metropolis, Spione and Lang's first sound effort, the celebrated M (which catapulted Peter Lorre to fame).
He had caught the interest of the Nazis by this time, so after another couple of Dr Mabuse films he decided to flee the country rather than work for them (von Harbou stayed behind), and arrived in America. There he was quickly snapped up by Hollywood producers to create a string of memorable thrillers, such as Fury, You Only Live Once, Man Hunt, and the World War II-themed Hangmen Also Die, which fed into a talent for film noir he took advantage of in the forties. Some of these were Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window and Secret Behind the Door, noirish Western Rancho Notorious and The Big Heat. After the fifties and one final Mabuse film, Lang had difficulty getting work due to his bad-tempered reputation and increasing blindness, but stayed a personality in the movie world right up to his death.