This early film from the immensely inventive director Fritz Lang contains some haunting images and fascinating examples of early special effects. The framing narrative is unusually spooky, told with an unsettling mix of eerie set designs and fast-moving story.
A tall, gaunt stranger halts a horse carriage outside a small German town. There’s a young couple inside. The stranger follows them into a local bar then leaves with the man while the woman (Dagover) plays with a cat. She follows them to a walled plot next to a cemetery and confronts the stranger, Death (Goetzke – very striking), in a massive candle-filled chamber. She asks for the return of her lover; Death issues a challenge. He will send her through time into a series of tragic romantic episodes. If she can save her male lover in at least one of the historical episodes, Death will give her back her current lover.
Fritz Lang made silent classics like M, Dr Mabuse and Metropolis as well as classic film noirs like The Woman in the Window and The Big Heat. Der müde Tod feels like a dry run for his 1924 Nibelungen films, with its folk legend style framing story, visuals of immense supernatural environments and subtitle: “A German folksong in six verses.”
The historical excursions – to Persia, Quattrocento Venice and a very fanciful ancient China – are a bit of a let down given the eerie framing story. They depend too much on chases and special effects although there are great examples of both here: the caliph’s retainers who rush at the camera in a frenetic way; the miniature army that comes from between the magician’s legs, his magic carpet …
But still, this is an engaging often spellbinding film to watch, with its blend of German Romanticism, orientalism and expressionism.
Der müde Tod gets a cinema re-release on 9 June 2017.