Destiny (Der Müde Tod, 1921), along with Fritz Lang’s succeeding effort Siegfried (1924), stands as one of the most essentially Expressionistic German films. The story, part legend, part fairy tale, is primarily a dream-vision of a young woman who is searching for her missing lover. The dream consists of three elaborately conceived episodes involving the young lovers as they try to elude the murderous designs of a cruel tyrant, who is always aided by the Angel of Death. This three-stories-within-a-story compositional device was later adopted in Waxworks (1924).
Lang had been the original directorial choice for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but was forced to decline due to other commitments. For Destiny he chose as two of his art designers, Walter Rohrig and Hermann Warm, both of whom had designed the sets for Caligari. Together with Robert Herlth they arranged such a memorable cinematographic decor, that compared to it, in the words of Lotte Eisner (The Haunted Screen), “the sets of Caligari appear reduced to purely arabesques, totally lacking the magic of chiaroscuro.” Lang’s use of lighting was as innovative as the original ideas of Max Reinhardt. Both realized the great extent to which light sculpts and transforms space. After Destiny, the technique of emphasizing the relief and outline of an object became standard. It became almost an article of faith to have sets lit from the base so as to transform and deform the banal shapes of tings by means of unexpected lines – or to have enormous spotlights to one side of the set, so as to use the projecting surfaces for strident shadow effects. Siegfried Kracauer (From Caligari to Hitler), recollecting these effects, expressed the following:
The long-lived power of DESTINY’s imagery is the more amazing as all had to be done with the immovable, hand-cranked camera, and night shots were still impossible. These pictorial visions are so precise that they sometimes evoke th eillusion of being intrinsically real. A “drawing brought to life”, the Venetian episode resuscitates genuine Renaissance spirit through such scenes as the carnival procession – silhouettes staggering over a bridge – and the splendid cockfighting radiating bright and cruel Southern passions in the mode of Stendhal or Nietzsche.The environment, unlike some of the purely decorative films, is crucial to the meaning. Fate, holding all of the characters in its inevitability, becomes the main actor, and manifests itself in the settings. Even Death, who appears almost sympathetic to the appeal from the girl (the German title of the film means “the tired Death”), is compelled by Fate to carry on with his grisly work. It is not surprising that such thematic content has interested modern political historians.