Death holds out his hands for the innocent babe’s life, but the heroine after some hesitation demurs. This still, which you would have seen brought to life had you been at Ipswich Film Theatre on October 30th, seems to portray a glowering figure of Death, ready to snatch the infant from its mother. It shows how deceptive appearances can be, for in fact his expression here is more grimly resolute than threatening, and the child is not the woman’s at all but someone else’s: with its life she could buy back that of her lover, cruelly taken from her in his prime…
This is the climax of the film, actually, and it would be churlish to reveal what becomes of her refusal to give up the infant’s life, once she has found herself unable to persuade even the most wretched and moribund of her fellow citizens to pay the ultimate price. Der müde Tod, translating as Weary Death, is an early (1921) silent by Fritz Lang, before he went on to make Dr Mabuse the Gambler, his Nibelung films, and Metropolis. It is not that commonly seen now, which made Ipswich Film Theatre’s decision to show it doubly gratifying, doubly because it was accompanied live by the Harmonie Band, an ensemble of musicians comprising keyboard, wind and viola.
The heart of the film is a trio of what one might term historical sequences, were they not purporting to be contemporary: Death proposes that if one of those three ordained imminently to die survives, he will spare the present young man. Accordingly, the other stories all have the same couple enacting a similarly frustrated love match. The first is set in Moorish Africa, and has a Frankish young man illicitly pursuing the Caliph’s sister; in the second he is a Venetian, or some such, of Renaissance extraction; the third has the young lovers happily serving a magician, until the Emperor takes a shine to the girl. It was not unusual for films of the period to contain sequences in more exotic clothing than their relatively sober bookends: Griffith’s Intolerance is a famous example, but Cecil B. De Mille did similar things, as in Male and Female, with Gloria Swanson transported to ancient Babylon just so he could photograph her with a lion’s paw on her back! Lang’s three episodes are by far the briskest and most fun in the movie, which drags a little at the start.
The Death figure, here somewhat distasteful of his unending work, contrasts strikingly with Bergman’s more zealous personification in The Seventh Seal, and visually seems to foreshadow the figure of the ferryman in Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932). All in all, a rare and fascinating evening at the Film Theatre, and just before Halloween, too.