Der Müde Tod (1921)

Dir: Fritz Lang, with Lil Dagover and Bernhard Goetzke

This film gave you a sense of the creative range that early filmmakers must have sensed in the still-new medium. Nowadays cinema has largely solidified into realism and genres, but this film comes from a time of flux and experiment. It’s a folk tale, a poem, a fantastical foray into exotic locations, a parable and a pious homily. They certainly don’t make them like this any more!

Death is weary of dispatching people (well, he had been particularly busy in the preceding years with the influenza epidemic immediately after the Great War). He offers a young woman whose bridegroom has just died three chances to bring him back to life: if she can alter the destiny of just one doomed man in Persia, Venice or China, Death will spare her lover. Of course she cannot save any of them; she simply repeats her dreadful loss three more times. Can she persuade someone else whose life surely must be unbearable – a beggar, the elderly infirm – to take the place of her dead lover? No: they all cling to every last second of their lives. She has the opportunity to sacrifice a baby so that her lover can live, but she cannot bring herself to do that.

It ends on a very Christian note: the lovers are reunited in death. Not something that happens in mainstream cinema these days. (I have just finished reading Jerome K Jerome’s autobiography, and he refers to the peace and contentment that his dying mother took in her devout belief that she would be reunited with her much-loved dead husband and child.) Myself, I took it as more of a parable of the inescapability of death. We may have moved the goalposts of destiny a fair distance with our scientific advances, but death still scores every time.

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