The cover of Kino Classics' magnificent new Blu-Ray edition of Fritz Lang's 1921 silent epic Destiny contains a loving quote:
"Opened my eyes to the poetic expressiveness of the cinema. When I saw Destiny, I suddenly knew that I wanted to make movies."
That was filmmaker Luis Bunuel, and he wasn't the only beloved director to cite this film as a major influence on his career. Indeed, Hitchcock told Truffaut both Lang and this film in particular were essential when it came to defining his early opinions of the medium and its artistic and storytelling capabilities.
What about it attracted these luminaries? Destiny, like Intolerance, jumps through time to tell a few variations on a theme---in this case the inevitably of death and the enduring power of love. Death is actually personified in the form of future Hitchcock silent player Bernhard Goetzke, and he sends a young woman back through time to ancient Persia, Renaissance Italy, and imperial China to demonstrate his inordinate power.
For its time, Destiny is impossibly complex. It lacks Intolerance's grandeur [and, arguably, its bloat], and as such, it's not as remembered---maybe something the Blu-Ray release and its own upcoming 100th anniversary might help remedy?---but it's as important as Griffith's film in showing the ability for films to be what we think of them as today---visual novels capable of being any place and any time.
Destiny takes place across centuries, and you could count on one hand the number of films before it that do what it does. But it's neither the first nor the best, and for that the film's reputation suffers.
It also fits in weirdly Lang's overall filmography---one that spans five decades. He'd go on to make masterpieces in Germany [M and Metropolis], as well as Hollywood [Fury and You Only Live Once], but Destiny is both a major departure and step up from what preceded it, that it’s not hard to imagine it almost startling audiences of the time.
The film is packed with memorable imagery---none more so than the face of Death himself. I’m a sucker for movies of this era for the expressiveness they bring out of their actors. There’s a reason that image of Nosferatu emerging from the shadows probably haunted your dreams as a young person. [They did mine.] Destiny’s Death isn’t a villain on that level, but watching him saunter up to the carriage in the film’s opening scene is something you won’t shake for a little while.
Of course, the film’s depictions of ancient cultures isn’t refined like we might expect from some filmmakers even a decade or two later, never mind an entire century. The Chinese sequence, in particular, doesn’t work the way other scenes do, the way many later Lang films would, nor the way Intolerance’s vignettes resonate today. That said, its Death character is agnostic, so to speak, and unlike Intolerance, it completely eschews any religious conversations or parables. There might be overtones, but its general obfuscation of such matters lends it some timelessness when compared to some of the one-dimensional cultural notes mentioned above. [Give Lang some credit, though; the film’s detail is truly magnificent.]
Ultimately, Destiny is a solid silent epic that falls short of our essential of the week in some small ways, but its miscues are more than made up for by the film’s obvious importance in stretching the storytelling form and the craft more generally. Lang is still clearly a man honing his craft, but there’s some pleasure to be found in seeing a master come close to figuring it all out. He would very soon after.