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DVD/Blu-ray: Der müde Tod | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: Der müde Tod

DVD/Blu-ray: Der müde Tod

Stunning images and lavish detail in Fritz Lang's four interlinked fantasies

Death (Bernhard Goetze) and the maiden (Lil Dagover) in his many-candled room

"Weary Death" – "Destiny", the English-language title, is weak by comparison – settles in a small German town, an impressive simulation constructed on a back lot of the Babelsberg Studio outside Berlin. He buys a plot in the churchyard, builds himself a dwelling with an impenetrable wall around it and casts his blight over a young betrothed couple, hoping that the young woman can conquer him and bring him respite from his wretched duty.

This is the gist of Fritz Lang's early (1921) "German folksong in six verses", but its format allows for three stories-within-a-story casting far and wide in time and place. Its huge impact on filmmakers since, including Hitchcock, Buñuel and Scorsese, is evident in the imaginative detail lavished on the four tales.

All that, as much the work of the three art-directors as of Lang himself, strikes with startling force and modernity in this loving high-definition 2K restoration now released by Eureka!. The colour tints of the original have not survived, so the approximations are mostly guess-work, but blue for night and red for fire are among the more obvious and effective choices. The restorers also found the original intertitles ingeniously, using calligraphy appropriate to the different settings – Gothic, Renaissance, quasi-Arabic and Chinese – and there's no doubt that the poetic balladeering of the text plays a crucial role.

The screenplay was by Thea von Harbou, at this time Lang’s lover; his first wife, catching them in flagrante, is supposed to have shot herself dead in the bath. In the bath? Yes, it doesn't quite ring true, and suspicions lingered though Lang was released without charge after questioning. He later left Germany for America, having been cuckolded in turn by von Harbou as Wife No. 2, while she became an enthusiastic Nazi collaborator. When she finally saw the film again in 1954, she was so churned up that she fell and broke her hip rushing out of the movie theatre, subsequently dying in hospital.

Death and the wall in Fritz Lang's Der muede TodSome of this we learn from Tim Lucas’s rather relentlessly knowledgeable commentary, which might have been pruned of some of its cross-references to future films when there's no direct link other than in the critic’s mind. Better is the short booklet essay by David Cairns, which means you would do best to watch the film commentary-free. That entails living with the larger presence of the quirky – mostly wind, brass and percussion-scored – but too often flat and repetitive soundtrack by Cornelius Schwehr. Nothing can dim the unforgettable images, though: the wall which dwarfs even its supernatural builder (pictured above), the steep staircase opening up within it which our heroine, having taken poison, ascends to confront him in a candle-filled room where he gives her a chance – not really an option – to save the three lives in the other stories, the colour-in-monochrome of the wonderful Bakst-like Oriental tableaux and the Chinese fantasy.

Bernhard Goetze is a mighty grim presence as Death, weary of his role but alarming in all his appearances, though the juve lead (Walter Janssen) and his not-so-young girl, star Lil Dagover at loggerheads with Lang, are only fitfully charismatic. The whole, though, is much more than just an interesting precursor to Dr Mabuse, Der Nibelungen, M and Metropolis.

The restorers also found the original intertitles, ingeniously using calligraphy appropriate to the different settings

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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