Originally titled “Der Müde Tod,” which in German means “The Weary Death,” this feature film by Fritz Lang is the first anthology film to be added to my “history of horror.” Less outspokenly Expressionist than some of the movies I reviewed last year, it is nonetheless an important film in the rise of the German film industry as a standard-setter in the cinematic art.
The movie begins by showing a young couple (Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen) on a carriage ride in the country. They are annoying the old woman in the carriage with them by constantly showing how in love they are. A tall figure in dark clothing (Bernhard Goetzke) flags down the carriage and boards. His aspect is so sinister that the old woman chooses to walk the rest of the way. He is referred to as “the Stranger” in the subtitles, and he settles on a piece of land near the cemetery, alarming the leading citizens of the town, who are portrayed as venal and selfish, and appear to conduct important business at the local tavern. The Stranger erects a huge wall around his property, with no evident door, gate, or other aperture, though he can get in and out, as shown by his frequent appearances in town. Although the townsfolk fear the Stranger, they are eager to discover the secret of his wall, perhaps suspecting that he keeps treasure hidden inside. One day the Stranger and the loving couple meet again at the tavern, and the young man leaves with the Stranger, which terrifies the young woman when she finds out and she goes to the wall and sees the images of dead people there – the last of which is her lover – entering the wall.
Relentless, the young woman confronts the Stranger, who is now revealed to be Death, begging him to bring her to her lover. He leads her to a large, dark room, with numerous long candles, each one in different stages of burning. The young woman demands to know why Death took her lover away, to which Death explains that he was simply following God’s will, and that it was her lover’s time to die. She asks if there is anything that can be done to get her love back, arguing that love is stronger than Death. Death tells her that each candle in the room represents a human life, and that currently, three candles are flickering, representing three lives hanging in the balance. Death promises the young woman that, if she can save one of these lives with love, he will return her lover to the living. It seems that Death is tired of his role, of having to be a tool of fate, and would welcome defeat in the face of love, but there is a mocking tone when he says this to the young woman.
With this framing device in place, the three stories of our anthology begin, each time with the woman and her lover played by the same actors, each time the man faces death and the woman must act to save him. The first story is set in the Middle East during the “holy month of Ramadan” and the woman is Princess Zobeide, sister to the Caliph. Her lover is a foreigner known as “the Frank,” and when they meet inside of the mosque, he is accused of heresy as an infidel and is chased by an angry mob despite her pleas. He escapes, but the Caliph is determined to find him. The Caliph visits Zobeide, attempting to find where her loyalties lie. Although she denies an affair with the Frank, the Caliph is unconvinced, and tells her his guards are scouring the city for him. After he leaves, Zobeide orders her servant, Ayesha, to find the Frank, and tell him to infiltrate the royal palace by nightfall. One of the Caliph’s guards tails Ayesha to the Frank, and reports back to his master. At nightfall, the Frank scales the palace wall and reunites with Zobeide; this reunion is cut short by Ayesha warning them that the Caliph is aware of the Frank being in the palace, and has sent his guards. After a short chase through the palace grounds, the guards capture the Frank, and the Caliph sentences him to death. He is buried alive and Zobeide watches in horror. We cut back to see one of the candles burn out – the young woman has failed in her first attempt.
The second story is set in Renaissance Italy, apparently the time of the Medicis or Borgias, when intrigue and back-stabbing was the rule of the day. Here, Dagover plays Monna Fiametta, who is betrothed to a powerful man, Girolamo (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), though in fact she loves Gianfrancesco, a young man with no political influence. Girolamo informs her that her lover has been condemned to die, and that he intends to take advantage of the time of Carnival to challenge him to a duel that he cannot possibly win. This gives Fiametta the idea to get ahead of events by inviting Girolamo to come over and be poisoned during a duel by her Moorish servant. Unfortunately, Girolamo intercepts the letter describing the plot to Gianfrancesco and sends him the invitation instead, being certain that he appears in a mask and is cautioned to utter no sound. Thus the plan backfires and results in the death of her lover instead. The second candle goes out.
The third story takes place in a highly stylized ancient China, at the court of an immeasurably powerful potentate, played by Charles Puffy. The emperor invites a magician, called Ah Hi (Paul Biensfeldt) to entertain him at his birthday, warning that the price of failing to be entertaining is the loss of his head. He calls forth his assistants, who are, or course Lil Dagover as Tiao Tsien and Walter Janssen as Liang, and they mount a flying carpet to travel to the capitol. He creates a miniature army and a magic horse for the emperor, and the emperor gratefully accepts, but also demands Tiao Tsien as an additional gift. Ah Hi insists that he cannot do his magic without her, but the emperor points out that he also cannot do magic without his head. Liang makes an attempt to escape with her, but he is captured and condemned to beheading. Tiao Tsien steals the jade wand the magician uses in his transformations, and is able to turn Ah Hi into a cactus, and two guards into pigs, and then a guard tower into an elephant to ride out of the palace, thus freeing Liang. However, each time she uses the wand, it gets smaller, showing that it has a limited charge. A vast army of pursuers is summoned by the emperor, headed by his archer (Bernhard Goetzke again). She sends forth some fire demons, but it doesn’t end the pursuit, as the archer is able to ride the magic horse through the air after them. She uses the final piece of jade to transform herself into a statue and Liang into a tiger. The archer shoots the tiger and it turns back into a man as it dies. The statue sheds a tear as the final candle burns out.
Death has won his game, but his weariness overcomes him, and he offers Dagover the chance to get her lover back if she can bring him another in his place within one hour. She asks older villagers to trade their lives, in one case after hearing an old man wish for an end to his suffering, but they consistently reject her, saying “Not a single day, not a single hour, not a single breath!” A fire breaks out in a building and the escapees realize that a baby has been left inside. She runs in to find the child and Death appears to claim it, but she cannot deprive the mother of her child and brings it back outside. She finally offers herself, content to join her lover in Death, and Death takes her through his wall and reunites the two lovers.
This movie is steeped in Orientalism, which was a kind of trademark of Fritz Lang’s career, all the way to his penultimate film. Despite the prevalence of racism in Germany at this time, many Germans were fascinated by the East, or by distorted colonialist visions of it, and it allowed for a kind of automatic exoticism and otherworldliness when depicting fantasy like this. This story was itself inspired by the Indian story of Savitri and Satyavan, and was written by Lang in collaboration with his Hindu-obsessed lover Thea von Harbou while Lang was grieving for his own mother’s death, and trying to sort out his feelings about mortality by looking at how other cultures handled it. While Lang’s and von Harbou’s intentions were good, and successful to a reasonable degree, the modern viewer can’t help but be put off by the prejudices about “foreign” cultures, especially the Chinese, as they are shown here. The emperor is shown as a stereotype from the worst side of anti-Chinese cartoon propaganda, and Ah Hi is also a typical shuffling “Chinaman” of the period. Both have ridiculously overlong fingernails, the emperor’s being entirely impractical claws that would put Freddy Krueger to shame.
In “The Haunted Screen,” Lotte Eisner points out that in this movie Death is a bourgeois, a nouveau riche who arrives in town looking to buy property, who is mistrusted by the tradition-minded residents. It’s interesting, given that Eisner was herself a German Jew and survivor of the Holocaust, that she doesn’t see a parallel between the way the decadent citizens of the town fear, ostracize, and snoop on Death and his property, and the isolation and suspicion of anti-Semitism. Of course, Death gets the upper and arguably the people have reason to fear him. In that sense it might not be logical for Eisner to connect the story of the Jews with the “weary Death.”
It is that question of Death’s final victory, even in the face of the “happy” ending of the reuniting of the two lovers in death, which probably stands out the most for viewers. Lang himself ultimately moved away from films that affirmed an insurmountable fate, but at this time he was dedicated to that principle, which is now seen as something of a trait of Germanic and Expressionist cinema. It makes sense as a response to his own personal loss, and can even be seen as more mature than creating a fantasy in which Love triumphs over Death, but it also may have been an offshoot of a society that, in 1921, was still flailing for a way to deal with unexpected defeat on a massive scale and the ongoing humiliations of post-war revolution, inflation, coup attempts, and a peace treaty that disappointed their hopes of forgiveness. It does at least avoid allowing the protagonist to escape her fate by taking the lives of others, a lesson that Germans at the time could have taken more to heart before it was too late for their nation.
Director: Fritz Lang
Camera: Fritz Arno Wagner
Run Time: 1 Hr, 39 Min
You can watch it for free: here