October 7, 1921
Directed by Fritz Lang
By October 1921, when Der müde Tod premiered in Berlin, most of the population of Germany and Austria had lost any control over their lives. The Mark had been stable through 1920, worth about a penny and a half, American. But the inflation had returned, and begun to accelerate once the first Reparation payment was made in June 1921. Money became worthless, and you had to sell whatever you could to get by. Death could come to anyone at any minute. Everything in life was surrendered to Fate.
But what is this Fate? How do we explain it, especially now that we see Christian metaphysics as but one choice among many. Fate can be observed and even maybe understood. This is the modern world. We live in the city. We can afford movie tickets and get an evening’s entertainment.
Fritz Lang grew up in the modern Vienna of Freud and Hitler, the son of a successful Baumeister, where he soaked in both high and low culture. When the war came, he enthusiastically enlisted in the Austrian Army, and in Fall 1915 he was assigned to a reconnaissance unit on the Eastern Front, where he made sketches of enemy fortifications and repaired damaged equipment in exposed positions, and was wounded in the eye from a mortar shell during Austria’s long retreat from the Brusilov Offensive in 1916.
While regaining his sight, he began to envision movie scenarios. Some of them may even have been made, though nothing survives now. In 1917 his father bought him a horse to replace the one that had been shot from under him, and he rejoined the Eastern Front. He was wounded again in early 1918, and this time claimed a nervous disorder that successfully kept him out of the rest of the war. While recuperating, he began living with his girlfriend, a nurse/cabaret dancer known today only by her pseudonym, Lisa Rosenthal.
One day he was sitting at a cafe, wearing his officer’s uniform and the monocle necessitated by his eye injury, when he was spotted by the producer of a patriotic play who thought he would make the perfect Prussian officer. He used this producer’s connection to arrange a meeting with Erich Pommer, the head of Decla. Lang won Pommer over completely, and convinced him to give him a job at Decla and a discharge. He was in Berlin by September.
Lisa came with him, and they were married in 1919. This was also the year that he began directing films, in addition to writing them. Fritz worked at both Decla and May-Film, and at May-Film he was introduced to an aristocratic Prussian named Thea von Harbou. Van Harbou had published her first novel at the age of seventeen and made her theatrical debut the following year. Her dual work during the war was suitably patriotic, and built her a writing reputation. When May-Film bought a story from her, she joined the company as a screenwriter, and Lang was brought in to assist with the film adaptation of her novel Das Indische Grabmal. They wrote it with the idea that Fritz would direct, but it was snagged from him by his boss Joe May at May-Film. What was to be Lang’s prestigious coming-out was cancelled, stolen by an inferior artist.
Lang threw himself into a new project with Thea von Harbou. Der müde Tod is the first story they wrote from scratch together. A small pre-modern town has a strange visitor (Death, of course) who builds an immense doorless wall around his purchased plot of land. A newlywed couple stop at the inn for their nuptial drink, and Death joins their table. Death disappears, taking the bridegroom with him. The bride searches for her husband, encountering a vision of a procession of ghosts – one of them is the husband. She is found collapsed on the ground by the local apothecary, who takes her into his shop and prepares a remedy for the fever she’s developed. Here, she reads from the passage from Song of Solomon 8:6 that states love is stronger than death, and decides to try it. She takes a poison so as to confront death and ask for her husband back. Weary Death tells her he doesn’t really want to do what he’s doing, and gives her three chances to prove her love is stronger than death by saving a life about to be extinguished.
And so the gripping frame story turns to three formulaic costume adventure stories that continuously retell the same story which the same actors. Time always runs out and the heroine fails to save the life of man doomed to die. In each story, she wields a little more power over her fate, but it is never enough. Love, at least her love, is never stronger than fate. In the end, she gives in to fate and finds her existential worth within fate’s cold system.
But this is no traditional concept of fate. It can’t be equated with Death, though the link is strong and clear, because for all his power, Death himself is not in control. He is also trapped by the workings of fate, in what Tom Gunning calls the Destiny Machine. A reification of fate in the Modern Age. Technology has not given any of us more power over our lives and by extension, over nature. It has grown, inorganically, into a network of interlocking mechanisms. To Gunning, the most we can hope for in Lang’s world is a visionary experience of the Destiny Machine, where we see how everything works, before we finally succumb to it.
Thea von Harbou joined Fritz on set, balancing his hard authority with sweet feminine friendliness. She had by this time left her husband, become Fritz’s lover, and moved into an apartment in his building. Lang’s wife “Lisa” was humiliated and pleaded with him to no avail. One day in late 1920, she walked in on a “script conference” between the two lovers. That evening, during a heavy snowstorm, was shot with his Browning, between her breasts, and found by police in the bathtub. Lang and Von Harbou were the only witnesses, and they waited a long time to call the police. She had phoned a friend and made plans earlier that evening. Fritz Lang was known as a megalomaniacal director within the German film industry, and there were many people who didn’t believe him. Erich Pommer definitely provided assistance in getting Lang off the hook, as he had with getting him out of the army in 1918. Fate isn’t an abstract concept for Berlin’s artistic power couple. Fate, in the form of a “destiny machine” has arranged a cruel plan for all of us. A story not written in a scripture, but set by a machine.
- Eyck, Erich. Eine Geschichte der Weimarer Republik. E. Rentsch Verlag, 1956
- Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity. British Film Institute, 2000.
- Jensen, Paul M. The Cinema of Fritz Lang. A.S. Barnes, 1969.
- Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film. Princeton University Press, 1947.
- McGilligan, Patrick. Fritz Lang: the Nature of the Beast. St. Martin’s Press, 1997.