In his Hollywood years, Fritz Lang could whip up a noir baddie worth reviling: Lee Marvin’s mobster in The Big Heat (1953), who in a jealous rage throws hot coffee into the face of his girlfriend (Gloria Grahame).
Or Dan Duryea’s Johnny Prince in Scarlet Street (1945), the walking epitome of sleaze with his slicked-back hair, demeaning pet names (he calls his girl “lazy legs” and her roommate “funny face”), and
outbursts of spousal violence.
But Lang’s earlier movies — the ones
he made before fleeing Germany and the ascent of the Nazi Party — offer a painfully conflicted perspective on villainy. The crimes perpetrated by Hans Beckert
(Peter Lorre), the whistling creep at the center of Lang’s pioneering early-sound effort M (1931), are perhaps the least forgivable acts imaginable: He kills children.
But Lang never shows the specifics of Beckert performing these murders — an approach that would have engendered easy hatred. Instead, he depicts Beckert at his most broken. When the reflection of a girl in a shop window sends Beckert into an emotional frenzy, Lang holds on the
moment, letting the scene run. Later, as Beckert begs an incensed mob to show sympathy, the character’s evil — with the aid of Lorre’s babyish aspect (round face, pudgy hands) — comes to seem even more tortured, motivated by drives beyond his control, something at the level of the soul. “I can’t help it!” he wails, falling to his knees before the crowd. Lang takes great pains to establish Beckert’s never-ending internal agony — unlike the gathering
Berliners, who listen on, confident and
secure in their own bloodlust.
Lang’s silent picture Destiny (1921), screening in a new 2K DCP restoration, harnesses compassion for an even grander figure of doom: Death itself. The movie
begins “somewhere, someday,” with an enamored young couple (Walter Janssen and Lil Dagover) necking in the back of a horse-drawn carriage. Their transport is halted by an apparition in a black gown (Bernhard Goetzke), firm of jaw and hard of stare, who hops in next to them as the car approaches a “town lost to memory.”
The stranger in black tracks the couple to a local watering hole, where Lang has a ball illustrating authority figures in the grotesque: The first plump dignitary seen in the bar — “His Importance, the Mayor,” per a title card — is introduced downing a pint and licking his lips in relish. The smitten couple sip from the bar’s ceremonial “bridal cup,” their joie de vivre increasingly threatened by the insistent closeness of the stranger. A startling vision — the stranger’s pint glass morphing into a fast-dwindling hourglass — frightens the young girl into leaving the room. When she returns, her man has vanished into the clutches of the Grim Reaper: His time has come.
Destiny then becomes the fantastical story of this girl’s desperate attempt to convince Death to bring her lover back. After swallowing a potion given to her by a craggy, gone-to-seed pharmacist (Karl Platen), the girl is reacquainted with Death, who gives her a tour of his lair — a room of giant, flickering candles, waterfalls of wax each representing a single human life. Death cups his hands around a guttering flame; when it’s extinguished, a baby surfaces in his arms, and Lang — in a horribly sad and tender gesture — cuts to the mother, off someplace unidentified, weeping over the body of her child. “My task is heavy,” Death tells his guest. “It is a curse.”
Death points to three candles nearing expiration and makes the girl a deal: If she can save one of the lives in question, he will give back her husband. The fable-like setup hurtles the character through several abstractly historical realities: Baghdad, Venice, China. Each tale is structured around a mini-plot, complete with surrogate roles for the leads, in which the girl is awarded a chance at saving her beloved. Within these templates, Lang reserves room for his usual obsessions, among them looming clocks that fill the screen and swarming crowds caught up in the contagion of violence.
Despite how it may sound, Destiny actually showcases Lang’s lighter side: The premise itself, after all, is one in which Death functions as a hopeful matchmaker. Lang also unleashes high-suspense sword-fights, cartoonishly obnoxious leaders (the burly Chinese emperor kicks his subordinates when upset), and flying carpets — a special-effects coup that would serve as the inspiration for Douglas Fairbanks’s The Thief of Bagdad.
If this movie about the grip of the next life has a mantra, it’s this: “Love is stronger than death!” When the girl exclaims this early on, just after witnessing the sudden passing of the infant, it’s hard to fathom the grounds for her optimism. But when the movie ends, in arguably upbeat fashion, that declaration comes to seem almost reasonable.
Directed by Fritz Lang
Opens May 20, Film Forum