Monday, March 20, 2006

Der muede Tod

Fritz Lang's 1921 film 'Der müde Tod' ('Weary Death') still fascinates. The picture is a link between the early silents, with their concern for phantasms and the fantastic, and the so-called "Expressionist" cinema that would follow — and of which Lang would be the champion pioneer. The in-camera exposures and tricks-of-scale demonstrate a filmmaker ready to excite his spectators; the architectural angles (gentle by certain standards set later on in Lang's cinema), the trap-doors, and the spear-like candles in Death's chamber (each representative of one human life) evince the emotional aims of this young director: to articulate, through lighting and décor, a morality beyond psychology; to pin-point the location of hope within the fatal.

For it is the -hope- of so many Lang-protagonists simply to -escape-, to find the "way out" of a structure or, more broadly, a system — one might say a -world- — that exists to oppress or, more specifically, to contain. I was struck revisiting 'Der müde Tod' by the layout of the film, predicated by its central premise: The love of Lil Dagover's life, Walter Janssen, has been whisked off by "Death" (Bernhard Goetzke). Overcome with grief, she attempts to poison herself, and as a result enters the netherworld wherein she pleads with Death for the return of her lover to the realm of the living. Death will grant her wish — but only if Dagover can succeed during one of three successive "scenarios of reincarnation" in saving Janssen (similarly reincarnated each time) from a grisly demise.

Three successive attempts: like the levels of a video game, or a shifting hallucination. More exactly, Lang (and his screenwriter/wife Thea von Harbou) express human consciousness as an entity without a singular corporeal seat, whereby cogito is something appended to nested "matrioshka dolls" of differing outward appearance. We might have existed at different times, in different places, any of which may be a dream state or fiction, "contained" (see above) by a more expansive, more complex fiction: Philip K. Dick (never to say the Wachowskis) avant la lettre. Each of the three scenarios into which Dagover is plunged — comprised respectively of a Persian caliphate, the Italian aristocratic milieu circa mid-millennium, and an ancient Chinese court — take place in or around palaces (all early occurrences of Lang's conception of the physical labyrinth as Danger materialized), and involve progressively larger casts of characters and more complex plots. There's no beating Death; three times he wins out.

Ultimately, Dagover is reunited with Janssen. She suicides to get there.

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