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Image Entertainment presents
"Is there no way to overcome you? I believe: Love is stronger than Death!"
DVD ReviewHave you ever had an immense, complicated dream that nests stories within stories? I certainly have, and the mixture of the tale and the bizarre dream logic can, upon waking, be almost irresistible. According to the blurb on the snapper case, director Fritz Lang claimed that the story of Destiny came to him in a dream. The narrative does have much dreamlike imagery, making it an intriguing little anthology film.
The framing story concerns a young loving couple (Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen) whose carriage stops at a crossroad and picks up a cloaked stranger who is none other than Death himself (in retrospect ironically named Bernhard Goetze). When they stop at an inn for refreshments, the woman is distracted; when she returns she finds that her fiancé has departed with the stranger. She runs through the streets seeking him and finally falls at the immense cyclopean wall of Death's garden (did H.P. Lovecraft see this film, I wonder?) where she sees the parade of dead souls—including that of her betrothed—walk through the wall. Distraught, she takes poison, but Death has not yet summoned her. He shows her a vast room of candles representing souls and tells her that of the three candles about to sputter out, if she can, through her love, avert the fate which awaits any one of the souls whose candles burn low, her beloved can be saved.
This takes us into three tales of doomed lovers, set in Mecca, renaissance Venice and dynastic China; the lovers are in all cases played by Dagover and Janssen, though the supporting cast varies. Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who would memorably play the mad scientist Rotwang in Lang's 1926 Metropolis here takes on several roles as well. The fantasy really takes flight in the tale of the third light, set in China. There, the heroine is the daughter of the magician A Hi, who is summoned to entertain the emperor. We get flying carpets, magical horses and demons of fire, as well as men turned into cacti and pigs. Yet in the end, can love be strong enough to defeat Death and escape Destiny?
This was obviously a fairly prestigious film at the time; the production values are quite high, even though a wide variety of styles from bizarre German Expressionism to decadent Chinese Empire are depicted. Although Lang doesn't move the camera much at all, preferring to change views with cuts instead, there are a great many striking visual set pieces here. Most notable is the iconic figure of Death, whose first appearance is nearly exactly echoed in Dreyer's Vampyr, and which also seems to have influenced Bergman's depiction in The Seventh Seal. The astonishing wall of the Garden of Death in its bleak, faceless hopelessness, is an unforgettable image as well. The sight of the Chinese emperor, shot through three successive circular doorways (resonating the three lights), is also highly dramatic in its stylization.
The acting is fairly good; Dagover and Janssen believably take on the auras of different ages with ease, such that one isn't quite sure that it is indeed them until the credits roll. The usual melodramatic over-gesturing is here rather restrained. The one drawback is the fairly primitive special effects available to Lang. He very much overuses double exposures to the point of annoyance. Many of these shots are crudely done and are hardly an advance over the work George Melies was doing twenty years earlier. The closing sequence with its extended double exposures does, however, work quite nicely. It's just a shame that it was so overused earlier in the film so as to destroy its impact.
Overall, an interesting romantic fantasy tale which defies ready categorization. Most interesting now for its visual qualities, it's certainly worth a look for those interested in film history and intriguing visuals.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: The image is pleasingly windowboxed. Unfortunately, the source material used appears to be a print from a sound rerelease of the film; the left side where the optical soundtrack would have been added is thus cropped off, resulting in an off-center picture. Given disc producer David Shepard's reputation for using the best materials, presumably no properly framed silent prints are still in existence. Various details are lost and items (such as the repeated clock face) which are clearly meant to be centered appear off-center to a distracting extent. It's quite unfortunate if this slightly cropped print is the only extant master, since there is so much striking imagery in this film.
The picture is presented with nicely subtle color tints. The source print is generally in quite good condition. There is the usual flicker found in silent films and instability of image and high contrast. There is some speckling and occasional frame damage, but not nearly as much as one often sees in pictures of this vintage. Destiny is presented at the proper frame speed. I'm not downgrading the film based on the cropping at left until I can verify what the situation is regarding the source materials.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The newly recorded orchestral track fits the film nicely, though it is not particularly memorable. The score appears to be the typical blend of classical themes and original music. The sound is crisp and clear, with natural reproduction lacking in hiss or noise. Stereo separation of the instruments is quite good.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Extras Review: Nothing at all. Even the chaptering is quite inadequate; each of the tales of the lights forms a single chapter even though they can run well over 20 minutes each.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsAn intriguing and visually striking early work by Fritz Lang presented in a decent transfer, nicely windowboxed but unfortunately slightly cropped at the left. Primarily of interest to Lang devotees and silent film enthusiasts, but certainly worth a rental.
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