If you celebrate Sukkot, may you have a wonderful holiday!
This week, it’s all about classic German horror films of the silent era. I’ll be covering Der Müde Tod, Faust, and Homunculus. Next week, I’ll showcase two short antique films (from 1901 and 1906), The Haunted Castle, and Dracula (which I found rather overrated). This year’s horror series will close with Frankenstein.
The common English name of Der Müde Tod is Destiny, though it was originally released as Behind the Wall. The German title, however, truly translates as The Weary Death.
Released 6 October 1921, this film originally bombed in its native Germany. Many critics felt it wasn’t German enough. Internationally, it was much more successful. Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., purchased the U.S. rights so he could delay the American release while copying some of the special effects for his 1924 film The Thief of Bagdad.
We’re introduced to an unnamed young couple travelling in a carriage, and then the scene shifts to the Golden Unicorn Inn, where several important townspeople are heatedly discussing a strange newcomer. This oddball has waged a campaign to be allowed to purchase an annex by the graveyard, and finally succeeded with enough gold. He claims he wants to build a garden there, though his plot of land is soon surrounded by a wall with no windows or doors.
The young couple runs into the stranger by the inn, where he shares their table. One of the barmaids insists they drink from the bridal cup, which turns into a terrifying vision of an hourglass. The young lady is so shaken-up, she runs away.
When she returns, her fiancé has disappeared. She’s told he left with the mysterious stranger, and tries to track them down. By the foreboding wall near the graveyard, she sees a parade of phantoms passing through the wall, her fiancé among them. This sight so unrattles her, she faints.
The pharmacist finds her and takes her in until she comes back to herself. In the pharmacist’s home, she sees a book (which doesn’t necessarily seem to be the Bible) open to the Song of Solomon. She’s very inspired by the line “For love is as strong as Death,” and drinks a potion that opens up a door to a staircase leading to the stranger’s lair.
The room is full of candles, each one representing a life’s progress from birth to death.
She begs him to restore her lover’s life to her, and he says it was just her fiancé’s time to go. He had no control over it, and had to do his job. Harvesting all these souls is so wearying, not at all a job he enjoys or does with gusto. Each soul is like a candle, and once it burns out, there’s no reprieve.
After enough begging and pleading, Death agrees to give her three chances, represented by three candles. Each candle is a life she can save. If she saves even one of the three young lovers, Death will give her back her fiancé. But once each candle burns out, there can be no do-over.
The Story of the First Light is set in Persia; the Story of the Second Light is set in Renaissance Venice; and the Story of the Third Light is set in Ancient China. Though these are all historical settings, they’re more the realm of historical fantasy than straight historical. Of the three stories, I most enjoyed the Chinese one. It has so much charm, innocence, and sweetness, together with my longtime interest in Chinese history.
In each of the three stories, the young lovers are played by the same couple as in the establishing German frame story, Lil Dagover (who played Jane in Dr. Caligari) and Walter Janssen. In each story, however, it’s the young lady who plays the starring role.
Though she fails to save any of the three lives, Death takes pity on her, and gives her one final chance to prove herself. If, within one hour, she can bring him the soul of anyone who only has a short time left in the world, he’ll take that life in exchange for her lover’s and restore life to the young man.
I won’t spoil what happens after this, but I will say it’s a very powerful final reel, with an unforgettable, very emotional ending.