Monday, 24 October 2016

Anthem for doomed love… Destiny (1921), Cambridge Film Festival with Stephen Horne

My first trip to the Cambridge Film Festival and a film projected in Emmanuel College; a sixteenth century venue for a film that features a sequence from around that period. Cambridge and Oxford are anomalies in the UK retaining so much of their earlier architecture in educational powerhouses that ensure that the present always gives way to the past. Fritz Lang trained as an architect and no doubt would have appreciated the additional context provided to his film by this vibrant antiquity.

I spent three years living in a college begun in 1264 – the last in a 1288 quadrangle - and you pass through without even scratching the surface: students haunt Oxbridge, flickering briefly and casting our flitting shadows against its external stone.

Tonight Death came to Cambridge and reminded us all that somethings outlast even the finest sandstone. Made in 1921 when there were over half a million war-widows in Germany, Destiny or Der müde Tod (literally The Weary Death) suggests that love is stronger than death but no less avoidable. To a nation in a devastation of mourning its gothic kindness would have touched so many: fairy-tale frankness masking a more positive than pessimistic message.

Bernhard Goetzke
Death is played rather convincingly by Bernhard Goetzke who carries his dark duties with a heavy heart and weary resolution: it’s not easy being the man in black but he wears it well and is nothing if not fair.

Lil Dagover is the Maiden who tries to reason with The Glum Reaper after the untimely demise of her love (Walter Janssen) her selfless pursuit of his life touching even his grief-drenched soul.

It is interesting that the man is in distress and not the damsel; she is relentless and willing to risk all and give all to save her love. After watching Nell Shipman do the same a few days ago from 1919, it’s interesting to see Lil Dagover also playing the swashbuckling hero.

Lil Dagover
This restoration was making its UK debut and the newly minted tints and tones were a treat, bringing out the film’s sumptuous design and cinematography. The crew worked on many other noteworthy Weimar films and it is no surprise that America and others were watching. Douglas Fairbanks allegedly bought the US rights just so he could copy elements of the Arabian sequence for The Thief of Bagdad and also delay release until after his own film. But the visual influence stretches along way… all the way to a Swedish beach in 1957 when a knight plays chess to stave off his death?

Destiny is a big step forward from Lang’s previous films, Der Spinnen, and it marks the beginning of his audacious fairy tales, spy stories and science fiction.

Meeting the strange dark man
The framing sequence in some un-dated present is relatively stripped back as the young couple travel in a horse-drawn carriage to a small town of Brothers Grimm vintage. They are joined by an intimidating dark stranger who follows them to a local inn. At the inn is a delightful collection of civic grotesquery who recall the story of a dark stranger buying land next to the cemetery and building a huge wall around it with no visible means of entry…

The couple toast the future life together but it is not long before the man is gone and the woman if in despair at the edge of the wall as wraith-like figures pass through her and the wall. She resolves to take her own life and to follow her man: love is stronger than death and she will rescue him.

The hall of candles was inspired by a Grimm’s fairy tale (thanks MD!)
She meets death inside his mausoleum and they walk amongst thousands of candles each representing a brief life that will always flicker out. Death is there for lives lived long and short – he takes a baby’s life with the same endless sorrow as an old man - he is a force of nature tasked by the almighty…

And yet, convinced of the woman’s love he is willing to give her a chance to defeat him and win back her dead man’s life.

She has three chances in three separate vignettes: set in Persia, Venice Carnaval, and lastly a magical China…. She has to prevent Death from taking her three loves in each scenario with their lives represented by a single candle flame:  if but one remains a-flicker she’ll have won but who can hope to beat Death.

A magic carpet ride
The contest thus set out I can say now more without spoiling... the end, when it comes, makes perfect sense and works on many satisfactory levels.

Stephen Horne has previously accompanied this restoration in San Francisco and Bologna and his familiarity paid dividends here with some sumptuous themes one of which lingered long after the film’s conclusion: Death’s theme. Stephen has the most varied kit of any leading silent accompanist and here featured even an Arabic call to prayer along with flute, accordion and Emmanuel’s Steinway. You need soul to make it all work and Destiny met its musical match.

The film was also accompanied by one of the Festival programmers Margaret Deriaz reading out English translation of the German title cards as the film had arrived from the Murnau-Stiftung in its native tongue.  But they have stout hearts at the CFF and Margaret read very well.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Lil Dagover
Destiny is a gothic pantomime performed with relish not just by Lil Dagover and Bernhard Goetzke but also a host of Weimar stars including Dr. Mabuse himself Rudolf Klein-Rogge, M’s Georg John and many more. Not the very best of Lang but a very moving signifier of what was to come and without doubt a very interesting film.

As we walked from the lecture theatre, the old walls of Cambridge were shrouded in dark and we were haunting again sure in the knowledge that love is stronger than mortar (boards).

I trust Der müde Tod is destined for home media release and with Stephen’s accompaniment too!

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