Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Der müde Tod / Destiny (2016 digital restoration by FWMS)

Der müde Tod. The stranger (Bernhard Goetzke) stops the carriage carrying the young lovers (Lil Dagover, Walter Janssen). Photo: Filmportal. Quelle: SDK.

Der müde Tod. A sample of the 2016 tinting. Photo: FWMS.

Der müde Tod. Ein deutsches Volkslied in 6 Versen / Väsynyt kuolema / Den obesegrade döden / Destino / Les trois lumières. DE 1921. D: Fritz Lang. Story+SC: Thea von Harbou (n.c.), Fritz Lang. Cinematography: Erich Nitzschmann, Hermann Saalfrank, Fritz Arno Wagner. AD: Walter Röhrig, Hermann Warm, Robert Herlth.
    C: Lil Dagover (la giovane donna, Zobeide, Monna Fiammetta, Tiao Tsien), Walter Janssen (lo sposo, Frank, Giovanfrancesco, Liang), Bernhard Goetzke (la Morte, El Mot, l’arciere), Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Girolamo, il Derviscio), Hans Sternberg (il sindaco), Max Adalbert (il notaio, il tesoriere), Wilhelm Diegelmann (il medico), Karl Platen (il farmacista), Erich Pabst (l’insegnante). P: Erich Pommer per Decla-Bioscop AG.
    DCP with English subtitles. Tinted. 93 min
    Inspired by "Historien om en moder" / "The Story of a Mother" (1847) by H. C. Andersen. Fritz Lang's mother had recently died, and Der müde Tod emerged from a memory of a childhood fever dream. Lang never forgot how his mother had saved him from the brink of death during the illness.
    Restored in 2K by Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung (FWMS) with the support of Bertelsmann, and with funds from the digitisation initiative by the Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien, and through the support of the development association Freunde und Förderer des deutschen Filmerbes e.V. at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory. The material basis used for the digital restoration of the film is a 35 mm b&w duplicate negative from MoMA. Individual shots were taken from a black-and-white copy from Cinémathèque de Toulouse. The lost film tints of individual scenes were simulated using contemporary distribution copies from other Decla productions from the same period.
    DCP from FWMS.
    Tinted and b&w.
    Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna.
    Introduce Ernst Szebedits (Murnau Stiftung)
    Ritrovati e restaurati
    ♪ Grand piano Stephen Horne, percussions Frank Bockius
    Cinema Lumiere – Sala Officinema/Mastroianni, 28 June 2016

Tom Gunning quoted in Bologna catalog: "Der müde Tod (The Weary Death) offers the most elegant convergence between the Destiny-machine and the film’s narrative structure. […] Der müde Tod remains also one of the most perfectly crafted films of the Weimar cinema, perhaps the most beautiful of the Märchen films based on folk and fairy tales. […] In the film’s intertitles and ‘naive’ characterisation Lang and Harbou invoke the style of a popular tale, with its simplicity of psychology, its materialisation of metaphysical figures and the tale’s aspiration to deliver wisdom about the antinomies of life, the intertwining of love and death. But concealed within its self-conscious invocation of an oral tradition of tale-telling Der müde Tod offers a complex meditation on cinematic narrative. The story stands as one of scenarist Harbou’s most poetic inventions. […] The simplicity and symmetry of the tale cannot obscure its powerful meditation on the nature of story-telling. As a tale, we watch this film unfold, aware that it is being told, our attention drawn to its structuring devices and to such extra-diegetic processes as casting and scripting. The film’s division into six single reel ‘verses’ draws the viewer’s attention to the film as a crafted piece of story-telling. […] Lang/Harbou also provide a series of relays between the tales through repetition. The similar narrative structure in each tale of love crushed by tyrants cues the viewer to see them as variants of a single plot, and establishes the film’s sense of fatality through repetition of the same story dynamics and identical endings. Each story moves towards its resolution implacably, like destiny. The end of each story is death, as the appearance of Goetzke signals the closure of each tale, Death becoming a figure of fate because it represents the inevitable ending. Story-telling, therefore, provides a perfect image of the struggle against, and surrender to, death, which is destiny. In Der müde Tod the story serves as a perfect image for the Destiny-machine, the system whose ending is always the same. And that’s why Death is weary." – Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang. Allegories of Vision and Modernity, BFI Publishing, London 2000

Der müde Tod. The wall of the garden of death. The chamber of candles, each representing a life. The stairway. These colours are not from the 2016 restoration. Photos: 100 Years of Movies website, 20 December, 2010.

AA: Fritz Lang's first masterpiece Der müde Tod, also known as Destiny and Les trois lumières, is one of the most influential films of all time. It inspired Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau, and Georges Franju to become film-makers. We can sense its impact many decades afterwards in Belle de jour, Orphée, and Les Yeux sans visage.

Fritz Lang was also an inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock, and Der müde Tod is the most uniquely personal work for Lang like Vertigo would be for Hitchcock. Both are about Liebestod. Lang even quotes The Song of Songs, about love being as strong as death.

Der müde Tod has been my number one candidate for the film I would once want to see in a good print. I have formed my opinion of the film based on 16 mm prints and by the Munich restoration which has been the best we have had (I wrote blog remarks of my last viewing of the Munich version of Der müde Tod in 2010). Much of the Munich print was in low contrast, but from brilliant passages of the Venetian episode it was possible to deduce the general visual quality. Also from the film's striking stills it was possible to understand its original frisson. There is a fine gallery of Der müde Tod stills at the Filmportal site.

As for colour, from my friend Matti Piuhola I learned that there had survived in Finland until the 1950s a vintage colour print of Der müde Tod. The film had been highly admired, and the colour had also been appreciated as truly special, with toning, tinting, and fantastic colour effects.

When I rushed to Sala Mastroianni after the screening of The Scarlet Cloak at Cinema Jolly the cinema was already full, and there was standing room only. I stood gladly "in standing ovation" to Fritz Lang's masterpiece during the entire screening but was not able to take notes. Der müde Tod was for me the highlight and centerpiece of this year's Il Cinema Ritrovato. Standing in the overcrowded cinema reminded me of another highlight in similar circumstances, watching the world premiere of Alexander Askoldov's The Commissar, shelved for decades and believed lost, in a special screening at Dom Kino at the Moscow Film Festival in 1987.

The vision of the zone between life and death in the framing story is laconic and powerful. Thanks to it Der müde Tod is a key film of le fantastique in the sense of Tzvetan Todorov. It has an intriguing affinity with Victor Sjöström's The Phantom Carriage (1921) which had had its premiere ten months earlier - on New Year's Day. An interior affinity.

The episodes of "the three lights" are inspired and playful. In the closing part of the framing story the film gets more serious and simultaneously more humoristic (the desperate people with whom Lil Dagover proposes to exchange "life for life" are not that desperate, after all). In the final moments the film ascends to the sublime.

The job of reconstruction and restoration is of the highest quality. The FWMS team has done the best possible job from the sources available. I like the black and white passages of the digital cinema package.

My only regret is about the tinting which is so heavy that I would welcome an all black and white alternative (the solution FWMS chose for Metropolis). I know that the film was released in colour but I think it is impossible to reconstruct the original fantastic glow of the colour on a first generation nitrate print.

Watching vintage toned and tinted nitrate with bare eyes or through a magnifying glass the colour appears much heavier than when projected. When one consults vintage nitrate for reference one should project it to see how it truly looks.

Heavy modern tinting in digital takes the sting away from Fritz Lang's images.

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