A young woman (Lil Dagover) bargains with Death to save the live of her beloved (Walter Janssen). She is sent to three historical periods where she is required to save a life. If she does the pair can be reunited.
A fable told across six parts, it’s The Seventh Seal meets Cloud Atlas. The same core players appear across time and space, transcending history but always dicing with death. The inevitability of fate is the core theme, reflected in the film’s English language title of Destiny.
Add onto this the eerie, ghostly effects of Vampyr and you have a haunting allegory. Yet in spite of its morbid subject matter, it doesn’t aim to inspire fear, and is more a satirical musing of the A Matter of Life and Death variety.
The image of death was based on Lang’s own hallucination as a sick child, and Bernhard Goetzke’s gaunt face and wide-rimmed hat are an elusive presences throughout the film. But death here is less a source of terror than a weary servant of inevitability.
The patchwork structure allows for a wide variety of visual settings, from the Middle East to Vienna and China, all of which Lang approaches with relish. A particular highlight is the Chinese sequence in which a magician needs to impress an emperor with his tricks.
Lang demonstrates the knack for pioneering effects that would allow him to make Metropolis a decade later. De müde Tod signaled his breakthrough in 1921, and, while initially unsuccessful , was highly influential, marking Lang out as one to watch.