Der Mude Tod ( Destiny) Fritz Lang (1921; Germany; script by FL and Thea von Harbou)

Der Mude Tod ( Destiny) Fritz Lang (1921; Germany; script by FL and Thea von Harbou)

Der Mude Tod ( Destiny) Fritz Lang (1921; Germany; script by FL and Thea von
Harbou) Lil Dagover; Bernhard Goetze

viewed 11 June 2017 Tyneside Cinema; ticket:

depth of tread

There is a shot in der Mude Tod that
concentrates into one image the psychic forces that Lang’s movie puts into play:
the shot of the Wall. The devils’s Wall. The
Wall is shot straight on from 90 degrees.
It rises above and beyond all who stand beneath it a presence that
overwhelms those who come within its ambit. The Wall is a cosmic abstraction
that divides the known from the unknown, a wall found only in the dream.

The Wall is of course an archetype, one in a movie that is contrived only out of archetypal forms and presences. Der Mude Tod is a visitation from the landscape of myth and fairy tale. The Wall has been built by Death to mark off his world from the world of the living and the man at the crossroads represents the other enduring archetypal image about which the film revolves. Death played by Bernard Goetze, whose extraordinary representation of the grim reaper calls to mind Ben Ekerot’s as Death in Bergman’s Seventh Seal, both dark personifications of the eternal riddle. Both haunting and unforgettable. Seeing Lang’s film was a strong reminder that the silent movie era worked strongly with archetypes to create characters and narratives. Both Hollywood and German silent cinema contrived narratives out of types: the lover, the liar, the warrior, the seeker, the hero, the beloved, the tramp, the lost, the wanderer. Silent movie scripts fashioned their material out of the stuff of dreams and myth. The characters in one dynamic sense were free, they were free from history and individuation. But unfree in another sense in that they were bound the more tightly to their form and constrained by fateful outcomes. In ‘silent movie’ scripts people tended to be found in ‘situations’ and then use their immediate resources to work their way out. Resources might be within them or outside of themselves, like allies that as in fairy tales might come in unexpected guise. Unlike modern scripts archetypal characters are not contrived from personal histories or subjectivities that lay claim to them and to their development. The compliance to archetypal form by fictitious characters, although delimiting in some respects, in a critical manner allows character to develop through lines of flight, intensifications and testings, rather than the playing out and development of the will of individuals. The idea of the primacy of the individual’s will in determining their lives is the ideological key stone of most late 20th century and all 21st century dramatic output, in particular cinema. The scripted imperatives are to realise your dreams, to buy what you need and to discover your individuation to attain your goals. Film today has little time for archetypes whose defining quality is their inability to be anything other than they are. And yet the archetype is a powerful and suggestive idea. Whereas it does not use subjective intention and individuation as a determining agency it brings into play the development of other psychic possibilities endemic to human experience. We are all types. The roles we play as part of the being of a type exert a strong hold over our psyche. Being a mother being a father have fateful consequences for our being in the world. They are in themselves a guide to responding to life. In life and in drama: the seeker, the lover, the warrior, the loser, the orphan as represented by a person can be put to the test to the point of destruction, yet still be shaped and held together by the psychic force of the archetype that they embody. This is evident in the scripting in der Mude Tod, of the female half of the loving couple. This female type calls on exclusively feminine traits to pursue her objective: her re-union with her male half. She is a feminine heroine who calls on the claims of love, faithfulness and steadfastness and the power of love projected to try to win back her male half from Death’s kingdom. The female in her is brave bold and conquers her fear, drawing on feminine qualities. Unlike most of today’s contemporary women leads, Lang’s heroine is not a transposed man, she is a woman and she works towards her goal by an process of intensification of her female qualities, not by denying them or abandoning them for male characteristics.

Lang’s Der Mude Tod (MT) is a strong visual reminder of what film could look like before the digital hegemony. The film’s images look as if they etched into screen rather than overlaid. Most of todays films have the look of a flat plane. Even where they are shot and exhibited in 3D, the 3D effect simply resembles a series of multiple planes. But Lang’s movie like a Durer woodcut, draws us in beyond the surface into spacial and psychological depth. The faces, the archetypal figures pressed into the celluloid, the extraordinary architecture, like the etchings from fairy tale collections, Mude Tod is visually burnt into tonal layers that create unfathomable depth suggesting immanent but unseen powers.

With its Gothic visual style knitted tightly to the other main expressive elements, archetypal characters, its representation of the face and body and its architecture, Lang produces a film that with its force of unity resembles the conviction of any of the Grimm’s’ fairy tales. Indeed Mude Tod in its subtitle references itself as a German folk tale. Lang’s film like the fairy tale, is a film of darkness but in this darkness we come to understand more deeply the defining qualities of the human realm. Adrin Neatrour

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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