Saturday, 17 March 2018

RE:BORN (2016)

Back in the year 2000, Tak Sakaguchi became a notable new star of Asian cinema thanks to a vibrant, low-budget zombie-Sci-Fi-action-gore flick called Versus, which burst upon an international genre distribution scene that was, at the time, hungry for all things Japanese in origin. Its director, Ryûhei Kitamura, discovered in his good-looking young choice of lead-actor, not only martial arts skills honed by years of street-fighting, but a certain charisma that belied the young performer's lack of experience with acting. His was a magnetic screen presence born of a personality that lit up the screen through elevating his frenetic fight choreography and compelling martial arts moves above an ability to convey emotion or develop a character with more standard acting skills. Fast-forward fifteen years, and Sakaguchi (having in the meantime nurtured a cult following of sufficient magnitude for him now to be able to afford to ditch the last name on his screen credit) has come out of a semi-retirement previously self-imposed so that he might concentrate on his burgeoning career as a director and writer, to team up with his former action coordinator on Versus, Yûji Shimomura, for this stripped-down action flick, appropriately titled Re:Born. Shimomura here assumes the role of director (this is the couple’s second collaboration following on from 2005’s Death Trance) but has also worked with Tak and the film’s other main combat supervisor Yoshitaka Inagawa (who also plays one of Tak’s main antagonists in the movie) to come up with a special new form of close-quarters combat utilising quick-motion knife play, which they call Zero Range Combat. The film is essentially a showcase for this technique, and its lightning-fast moves are deployed from the very first scenes, which take place in an underground bunker where a special-forces unit armed to the hilt with night-vision goggles and machine guns, etc., is, nevertheless, entirely taken down by a single shadowy panther-like presence known as Abyss Walker (Yoshitaka Inagawa): an apparently invulnerable hitman who lurks in hidden corners and appears to harbour the fleet-foot ability to materialise in opposite sections of the same facility moments apart.


As far as plot and character motivation may be of any concern at all in this picture, we don’t get much more of it here than the barest minimum necessary to convey a sense that this is a narrative film rather than merely a collection of action set-pieces and fight scenes strung together. Although Sakaguchi’s co-screenwriter, Benio Saeki, uses Tak’s character Toshiro’s PTSD as an effective device for presenting his intrusive memories of past traumas in the form of tantalising flashes of backstory, these have to be pieced together and interpreted by the viewer over the course of the film and then placed in context alongside Toshiro's personal history, which is explained half-way through by one of his still-loyal surviving comrades, played by Orson Mochizuki. 

At the start of the movie, Toshiro is a blank canvas: a former elite killing machine who has to self-medicate in order to dampen down the violent impulses that still linger in his psyche. Despite the fact that he has given up his former profession to run a convenience store in downtown Tokyo, his instinct for violence is still liable to be re-activated by memories of the harm he has perpetrated during past missions. Many of the faded scars still visible on Toshiro's face and body appear to have been self-inflicted, suggesting a degree of self-harm has also occasionally been enacted as a means of controlling his inner destructive impulses. Tak presents Toshiro as someone who cultivates a calm, placid Zen-like surface that he uses to suppress a steely core he does not want to bring to the surface, unless he is presented with an unavoidably lethal situation -- at which point the old skills snap back into place and the Super Solder operative that has never truly gone away is called upon to fight once again. Toshiro does everything possible, though, to avoid confrontation of this sort in his day-to-day life, knowing the results could be catastrophic if he were, for example, to react violently when his store gets held up by a gang of small-time hoods. When this does, in fact, happen, instead of taking the malefactors down like one would expect him to do, Toshiro serenely hands over all the cash in the till and then replaces the day's take with his own money!


Although Tak Sakaguchi -- now looking considerably older than the fresh-faced youth of Versus, if still very much better than most of us -- is not required to display demonstrable signs of emotion at any point in the movie, and has only minimal dialogue, his character Toshiro is provided with a support network of devoted former comrades and a cute adopted child daughter called Sachi (Yura Kondo) to do the work that is necessary in order to make this otherwise insular character appear sympathetic. Help is provided by the sentimental music cues composer Kenji Kawai provides, particularly during Sachi's scenes with Toshiro. Toshiro's former comrade Kenichi (Takumi Saitoh), permanently injured and facially scarred during the course of saving Toshiro's life on an older mission that occured some years back, continues to receive regular visits from his loyal pal; and the portrayal of Toshiro's devotion to little Sachi certainly helps humanise him, as well as provide the mythical basis for his reputation as the "reborn ghost" -- which is hinted at in the book Sachi is shown reading from throughout the first part of the film, titled The Beginning of the End of the Legend.  

But all of this is merely the set-up for the true business of the movie, which is to present viewers with a set of tense scenarios that can only result in a series of close combat fight scenes that frequently culminate in showers of arterial gore spray emanating at regular intervals from innumerable blade-shredded throats. The motley group of foes and villains Toshiro must combat and overcome over the course of the picture have even less depth and personality than he does, but nonetheless endow events with a certain flamboyant comic-book exuberance otherwise eschewed by the muted tones of Tetsuya Kudô's digital photography, despite the shallow motivation for conflict between these antagonists and Toshiro producing little in the way of the moral ambiguity or divided loyalties that we've recently come to associate with the Marvel or DC Comics universes from their transitions to the cinema screen. 


Toshiro, in his previous life as a combat veteran, was known as "The Ghost", and has, we learn, earned the lasting enmity of his nemesis "The Phantom" (Akio Ôtsuka) and  former partner Abyss Walker, simply for leaving their surrogate family-cum- military unit because of moral concerns he'd acquired, concerning The Phantom's penchant for kidnapping little children and brainwashing them to become agents of international crime and mass genocide! Silent assassin Abyss Walker -- in his black, shroud-like cloak and goggles; and criminal mastermind The Phantom -- puffing on cigars whilst sporting dark glasses that partially mask the vertical scar across the left-hand side of his face -- couldn't look more villainous if they each walked around with placards around their necks proclaiming: 'I am an evil villain'; but some of their underlings are even more deranged and exotic-looking, and include a short-skirted schoolgirl killer and a sword-touting teenage whiz kid.


Toshiro initially effortlessly identifies and dispenses with multitudes of anonymous heavies sent by The Phantom to ambush him by stealth as they emerge from the crowds in the public squares of Tokyo. The fighting style reportedly created for these clashes is actually based around short, sharp fist jabs and quick-fire blocking body stabs rather than the more demonstrably cinematic martial arts moves of many other fight movies. They require additional sound effects and a jagged editing style in order to allow the eye even to fully register their existence. Toshiro's abilities are presented here as though they were equivalent to a superhero's special powers rather than falling within the normal range of a human skill, since he seems to enter a highly focused yet closed-off state of consciousness just before a fight that allows him to move quickly enough to dodge bullets while disposing of half-a-dozen assailants at a time, each one felled with a quick blade slash to the jugular. His weapons also include, at one point, a shovel, as well as the usual collection of lethal knives; and one would-be assassin is dispatched with a chopstick through the throat which Toshiro wipes down afterwards to continue using with his food after the assailant interrupts his meal! The centrepiece of the movie, though, is a forty minute fight scene set in a forest, with two-hundred enemy troops and trained assassins Toshiro and his two pals have to slash, kick and punch through in order to reach the Phantom's military base, where Sachi is being held hostage as a lure to draw "The Ghost" out into the open. It's a kinetic tour de force of bone-crunching, throat-slashing and neck snapping, delivered with convincing aplomb before the inevitable double-stand-off occurs at the climax, first between Toshiro and Abyss Walker and, finally, Toshiro and his old boss The Phantom: a concluding scene that’s played for deliberate Kill Bill-like anti-climactic pathos rather than the expected blood-letting catharsis nurtured by the build up to it. 


In truth, there is little in the concentrated, laser-focused simplicity of this movie that will really surprise or win-over anyone not already persuaded by the silent professionalism of Tak Sakaguchi's particular brand of stoic screen machismo, but this bare-bones dual format release from the UK's Eureka Entertainment label should adequately satisfy his cadre of fans, acting as it does as the ultimate feature-length demonstration piece for his many physical talents, his poise and prowess, and his charismatic screen presence.   



Saturday, 17 February 2018

THE HOUSEMAID (2016)

It is no surprise that colonialism should have such an important role to play as the thematic lynchpin in Derek Nguyen’s debut feature The Housemaid (Cô Haû Gaí). The film, set in Vietnam in 1953 during the French Indochina War, positions itself as a traditional Gothic romance, a genre with many established literary antecedents in the 19th century that set a textual precedent for dealing with issues that arise from the fact of colonialism and the social dynamics of Empire -- including Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, or even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. When it comes to the Gothic in cinema and on screen, none have mined the post-colonial guilt of a faded empire nation more effectively than Britain’s Hammer films in the 1960s and ‘70s, especially when it could find ways to combine the theme with Freudian notions of the return of the repressed; for example, in the sexually charged exoticism that underscores Jon Gilling’s The Reptile. However, Nguyen’s approach to the Gothic and to colonialism have much more in common with the work of Guillermo Del Toro in his films The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and, more recently, Crimson Peak which set creepy, fantastical goings-on in a closed location defined by a particular milieu, and use familiar tropes related to the Gothic genre to provide metaphorical context and commentary on specific historical events.

Writer-director Nguyen was born in what was then Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1973. His family left South Vietnam for the United States two years later, along with 130,000 refugees who also fled the country during the US evacuation, fearing retribution from the forces of the invading North Vietnamese. In The Housemaid, Nguyen reaches back several decades to before the Geneva Accords and the ensuing communist insurgency, to when the Viet Cong’s predecessors, the Viet Minh, were fighting a war which had been raging since 1946, for independence from French colonial forces. The complexity of the historical detail matters little to the arc of the story but is used merely to provide an anchor for a tale that seldom strays beyond the borders of a once grand but now gone-to-seed French colonial estate on the grounds of a rubber plantation hiding a very dark and violent history of abuse and oppression. This decaying mansion and the forbidding forest of rubber trees on its outskirts provide all the Gothic menace one could hope to derive from such a tale, as Nguyen turns for his Gothic model to a recent successful update of the recipe that recently helped revitalise Hammer Films: namely the 2012 adaptation of The Woman in Black



Originally, that story took the form of a novella by writer Susan Hill, and aimed to capture the essence of traditional fireside ghost stories like those that once might have been told by M.R. James to his Cambridge students over a glass of Christmas sherry. For the updated film iteration, imagery and more forthright jump-scare techniques borrowed from modern J Horror were also brought to the table. This is the style The Housemaid slavishly seeks to imitate, although after commencing with a strong but imitative prologue that reproduces a vision of the threating, darkly veiled spectral entity familiar from the source of its inspiration, the film later drifts into waters apparently more sedate, but with a stronger focus on areas of dark romance and sexuality. It becomes a fable-like exploration of the unequal but ambiguous erotic power dynamics that lie behind the master and servant, oppressed and oppressor relationships so intrinsic to a colonial set up, but will probably mystify or bore western horror fans who aren’t also up on their Poe or Daphne Du Maurier -- although this aspect of the tale doesn’t appear to have harmed its reception at home. However, this "third-highest-grossing horror film in Vietnam’s history" (a nice publicity line, but how many horror films from Vietnam have there actually been?) can’t resist for long the urge to unleash its own budget version of a ‘kitchen sink’ finale, as the last act presents a veritable torrent of enjoyably over-the-top pyrotechnic set-pieces and unlikely plot twists in a bid to hold its own with contemporary western fright flicks along the lines of Insidious or The Conjuring and its ilk. 



Nguyen’s screenplay admittedly does an impressive job, though, of outlining a very specific period in Vietnam’s history and making its content perfectly fit the well-defined contours of an utterly conventional ghost story cum Gothic Romance. The film’s nervous young orphaned heroine, Linh (Kate Nhung), arrives at the Sa-Chat estate on a suitably stormy night, looking for work as a housemaid after her family has been killed in air raids that wiped out most of her village. Austere head housekeeper Mrs Han (Kim Xuan) and an affable cook who claims also to be a witch (Phi Phung) are the only occupants of the otherwise-empty mansion, which is being preserved like a museum relic until the eventual return of its master -- currently away fighting communist guerrillas as an officer in the French army. Meanwhile brooding groundskeeper Mr Chau (Kien An) lives alone in one of the outer huts on the rubber plantation formerly used to house the French overseers who once made life a misery for the poor indigenous workers tricked into coming from all over the country to toil on the estate on the promise of good wages and a decent place to live. 



The estate’s dark history is defined by its troubling mixture of public exploitation and a very private, domestic form of grief: the imperialist cruelty and violence meted out to the plantation workers and their families – in the form of whippings, beatings and rapes – exists alongside the mental disintegration behind closed doors of the French estate manager’s tragic wife Madam Camille who, suffering from post-natal depression, reputably went mad with loneliness when her husband was called away to fight in the war: she drowned the couple’s baby in the bathtub but continued long after to administer to its rotting corpse in its crib, until finally drowning herself in a nearby lake. These macabre legacies of Empire (according to the kitchen cook, who tells Linh all about them) each leave their own imprint on the house and its surrounding grounds: Madam Camille’s black-shrouded ghost apparently haunts the hallways, staircases and recesses of the now-neglected mansion; while the spirits of the many hundreds of workers, murdered when the war for independence first broke out, allegedly now wander the forest of rubber trees under which their bones still lie buried in hidden mass graves.



The first act establishes Linh as a new and disruptive presence at the empty Sa-Chat estate -- with its grisly retinue of stirred up secrets and its still-uncertain future -- and falls into a pattern familiar to many traditional spook fests in which long, slow, moody sequences, where the young housemaid explores the mansion’s dark corridors by lamplight, are followed by the tension-release of a sudden jump scare. This is where the film is at its most Woman in Black-ish, with briefly glimpsed ghostly figures swishing into the frame, just beyond the protagonist’s eye-line as she wanders rooms and landings designed to showcase lush production design and set dressings highlighting a mix of Vietnamese and Western architectural and ornamental influences. These early forbidding explorations of Linh’s are also disturbed by the hollow, echoing, insistent cries of an unseen mewling baby, heard in some far-off, unidentifiable section of the house; and the inexplicable sight of a self-rocking crib, swathed in cobwebs, from which grabbing phantom hands suddenly emerge … only for Linh to wake with a fright from what turns out to have been merely a haunting nightmare. 

Such imagery is throughout complimented by Sam Chase’s rich and deeply textured cinematography, layering evocative details -- like the House of Usher-style family portraits lining the walls of Sa-Chat, or the estate's imported 1920s furnishings, both of which subliminally remind one of its rootedness in French imperialism -- in a blossoming mantle of atmospheric gloom and shadow seen enveloping the storm-lashed mansion. The estate's mix of east and west influences on its interior design can arguably be seen as a metaphor for the film itself, which has its own mosaic of influences that take on the history and unique geography of the regional setting and use them as the basis for an exercise in pure mainstream genre filmmaking that relies on story beats and filming techniques for its stylistic dressing that are indicative of the popular western forms of cinema its US-raised writer and director grew up on.



The middle section of the film is based around what happens when the estate’s French master, Captain Sebastien Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud), turns up out of the blue, badly wounded after being ambushed by independence fighters, and in need of urgent medical assistance. He and his family have always insisted that local customs, such as the beliefs and practices of Eastern medicine, be ignored as a matter of principle and, in defence of that stand, Mrs Han forbids the witchcraft-practising cook from administering any of her potions and spells while they wait for a western doctor. However, when Han is called away to visit her sick mother, leaving Linh in charge, the young housemaid feels unable to resist when the Captain’s condition deteriorates to such an extent that death seems certain, and cook persuades her to let her try her own methods as a last resort. Here the film takes a detour away from the suggestive atmospherics of a traditional Gothic ghost story and into areas of more outright fantasy horror, as the cook’s ritualistic spell to accompany her remedies not only facilitates a miraculous recovery in the Captain, but appears also to raise the zombie-like cadaver of Madam Camille from its watery grave! 

This development (as well as the ensuing instances of poltergeist-style activity inside the mansion) at first suggest we are about to be given a straight up rollercoaster ride of spectacle-based horror, but instead the story slows down to become almost exclusively centred on a developing romantic relationship between Laurent and Linh. When the two remaining impediments to the couple embarking upon a full-blown romance – namely the cook and Mr Chu – leave for their annual holiday and hand the house and estate over to the sole care of Linh, she gradually goes from being nurse and carer for Laurent to becoming his lover, which eventually leads her to the role of mistress of the house. By the time a disconcerted Mrs Han and the others have returned, Linh has fully replaced Madam Camille in that role!



Here the film indulges in a minute examination of the shifting power dynamics at play in the relationship, making plain the exploitative aspects inherent to this historical context, and the social obstacles likely to crop up for the two lovers, which are looked at from both sides. When Laurent’s army colleagues visit the estate, they view Linh as almost subhuman; one of them even attempts to rape her – forcing Laurent to stop turning a blind eye to his countrymen’s abuses and put his cards on the table, renouncing his affiliates by kicking the group out in a fury. An even greater choice has to be made when Laurent’s English fiancée Madeline (Rosie Fellner) turns up wishing to resume their broken alliance, which leads to the melodrama of a bitter love rivalry that cuts across both class and racial barriers. 

But other class-related complications occur for Linh, too, when her employer Mrs Han returns, only to find that it is she now who has become the employee, while her former housemaid is now the mistress of the estate and her boss. Both Laurent and Linh have to face the accusation from their respective social peers that they have become “the enemy”, with Linh also having to confront the same predicament as that which once faced her predecessor, when she falls pregnant just as Laurent is about to be called away again to fight. There’s some justification to accusations that the apparent departure from straight ghost story and more upfront horror content for large stretches of the middle section of the film results in a slowness of pace, but the issue of the threat that the relationship poses to Linh’s cultural identity and the questioning of her suitability and authenticity in the role she has been called upon to assume at Sa-Chat is eventually explored through a possession subplot kicked off when Laurent opens up his former wife’s wardrobe to Linh in order to help her look more comfortably the part in her new high-status role.



There is eventually a huge twist to come that makes use of unreliable narrator tricks that are based on an ambiguity that's inherent to the status of the point of view from which we’ve been following these entire events; and the final act turns into something of an Evil Dead styled supernatural bloodbath, as bodies start piling up at the hand of the revenant Madam Camille, while the rotting corpses of the dead also rise up from their plantation ossuary in scenes highly suggestive of similar ones that were depicted in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh-Eaters. Scary pay-offs such as these ensure the film eventually delivers on its early promise, but it will be the fans of more traditional gothic fare who will be most likely to appreciate the thoughtful ruminations that lie at its heart, on the possibilities (or lack thereof) of rapprochement after colonial rule and the privations of war. This is an accomplished feature debut, with strongly committed performances from the small but convincing cast. It’s well worth a watch and is currently available in the UK on the Montage Pictures label, a sub-division of Eureka Entertainment, in a dual format double-disc edition with no extras.  

       

Saturday, 3 February 2018

STRANGLED (2017)

 At one point during the final act of Árpád Sopsits’s extremely grim, murkily-lit, based-on-true-events thriller Strangled (A Martfüi Rém), soul-crushed lifer Réti Ákos (Gábor Jászberényi), who has been languishing in jail for the rape and murder of a former girlfriend after his death sentence got commuted to life imprisonment, is marched from his dank prison cell and deposited before the state prosecutor. Here he is informed that, even though recent events may suggest he has been innocent all along of committing the crime for which he has so far served eight years in prison, he is, in fact, as far as the State is concerned, still very much a guilty man. There has been a recent spate of attacks culminating in the murders of several women in the same vicinity as his original “crime of passion” (the remote, semi-industrialised town of Martfü in Hungary), which are considered ultimately to be his responsibility too, despite the fact that he has been behind bars the whole time. Indeed, he shares as much of the blame for the mounting tally of mutilated female corpses (one of which is a child), currently being fished with alarming regularity out of the swampy lake which bounds this remote region of Hungary, as the real killer does. Using the cruel Kafka-esque logic of totalitarianism, the true murderer must have evaded detection all those years ago because Ákos just happened to be the more convenient suspect at a time when the State Police found itself under severe pressure (as it is again now) to get the case cleared up and to have a conviction secured. By succumbing to Police questioning and by making a false confession at the time of the original murder, Ákos has cast doubt on the infallibility of the authorities and on their ability to keep order. You see, these events take place in the year 1964. With Hungary part of the Soviet Eastern Bloc, the Communist authorities at the Hungarian branch of the Party still have to insist publically, for ideological and political reasons, that a serial killer cannot possibly exist in a country under communist rule. The State does not make mistakes.




Despite advertising itself as a true crime thriller based on a notorious case that occurred not long after the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the subsequent Soviet military intervention, Strangled is a taut, crisply shot neo-noir thriller made up of elements instantly recognisable as constituents of that particular subgenre and style from their origins all the way back in the ultra-cynical Hollywood noirs of the 1950s. As the historical narrative unfolds, we recognise a series of familiar tropes: there is the initial miscarriage of justice angle; then the falsely accused man who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and now finds himself ensnared in a web of corruption he cannot untangle; next we get the boozy cynical washed-up cop on the case, passed over for promotion and now reluctantly teamed up with a young upstart protégé who makes political waves for the authorities in pursuing the truth at all costs; and then there is the domestic angle encompassed by the nervy, isolated wife who begins to suspect her husband just might be the local serial killer causing so much misery. Finally, we have the killer himself – an ordinary man, unsuspected by his peers or anyone outside the walls of his own home, but all the time wrestling with increasingly violent urges that lead him to ever more brutal acts of destruction.


There is nothing in the film, in terms of plot, then, that hasn’t been put to productive use in the noir tradition many times before. It is merely the political and social context in which these elements now occur which is different. By enacting in this setting narrative devices traditionally associated with classic Hollywood’s film noir tradition, the film is implicitly denying the ideological claims of Cold War era Communism. It suggests that the State cannot mould human nature and socially engineer away or eliminate its innate drives and pathologies; and that the primitive urges so graphically portrayed throughout this film will find their outlet in disturbed minds whatever system of societal organisation we might choose to implement. Indeed, to deny their potential for agency in the expression of human desire and action, merely for ideological or propagandistic reasons, is to grant them even more destructive power over us.



Strangled plays out like some claustrophobic, enervated nightmare slowly unwinding over decades. The opening scenes condense into ten minutes of screen time the events immediately leading up to the murder of Ákos’s girlfriend in 1957, and cover his subsequent trial and a police re-enactment of the crime. The latter is carried out after a confession is made by Ákos while in police custody. These scenes also convey a sense of just how isolated the town of Martfü actually is. As it is the primary provider of employment in the town the community is almost entirely dependent on the local shoe factory; without it, the town probably wouldn’t exist at all. The streets are near-deserted until the end of the working day, when the entire workforce emerges en masse through the gates of the factory complex, the afternoon winter light dimming with clocking-off time to become a pitchy darkness. 


At this stage the viewer is provided with conflicting signals as to the likelihood of Ákos’s guilt: on his way home after work he catches up, and gets into a heated dispute with, a female co-worker he’s been seeing, for whom he has recently left his wife and son only to find that she has cooled on their relationship, and now wants to break it off. Their altercation is observed by a clandestine watcher, who has also been following this same young woman home from her place of work after scouting the area by motorbike. We cannot clearly see the face of the actual attacker because he is wearing motorcycle goggles. He clubs her to the ground and strips and rapes her in the mulchy undergrowth of the verge, before throttling her to death and dumping the body later that night in a nearby reed-covered lake. When we then crash cut to Ákos re-enacting these events for the police (with a cardboard axe used as the weapon that initially strikes the victim down), we have little reason to doubt his guilt. The police team, led by senior cop Katona Gábor ügyész (Zsolt Trill), push for a guilty verdict at the subsequent trial, but Katona’s sidekick Bóta nyomozó (Zsolt Anger) has some doubts because of inconsistencies in Ákos’s testimony, and about the fact that the supposed weapon used – an axe – has never been found. Also Ákos has a habit of altering the details of his account of the crime with each retelling. These discrepancies are pushed aside by Katona, though, as the Party wants this embarrassing episode disposed of as quickly as possible. Murder and necrophilia are not judged to be a good look for this post-uprising regime, which is attempting to project an image of an ordered and lawful society to its people.


When we check in on the town of Martfü eight years later, in 1964, it is to find that little has changed in the meantime. Everything looks exactly the same as it once did: the shoe factory is still the main employer of the town's meagre population, and Bóta is still a local police detective -- although his former sidekick Katona has been promoted, and is now State Prosecutor. When another sexualised murder of a female employee occurs while on her way home from work at the shoe factory, closely followed by yet another attack on a third young woman who also worked at the same site (but who, this time, survives after being knocked out by a hammer blow to the head and then assaulted, after which she’s left for dead on a railway track, only managing to haul herself off the rails at the last possible second before a speeding train is about to bisect her), a disillusioned and drink-sozzled Bóta finds out that the authorities have drafted in his former partner’s young protégé, supervising prosecutor Szirmai Zoltán (Péter Bárnai), to help him quickly clear up the case. 


Zoltán notices the links to the Ákos case and decides to look again at the original conviction. This opens up a whole extra layer of intrigue and political manoeuvring as Zoltán’s suspicions result in his boss Katana starting to worry that the mistakes and cover-ups of his past are about to resurface and upend his high-status career if it is found during the course of the latest investigation that he sent an innocent man to prison. This prospect looks even more likely when, under pressure from his sister Rita (Zsófia Szamosi), a suicidal Ákos sets out to launch a new appeal against his conviction. A nervy Katana secretly employs detective Juhász (András Réthelyi) -- one of the junior cops helping Bóta and Zoltán investigate the new attacks -- to keep tabs for him on what Zoltán is up to; when he finds out that the latter’s discoveries are leading him closer to the conclusion that Ákos was indeed innocent, he threatens Bóta with the possible release of previously suppressed police surveillance files documenting his involvement in the 1956 Uprising – unless, that is,  Bóta agrees to do everything in his power to hinder Zoltán's current investigations.


This political intrigue and police in-fighting occur against a dour backdrop of suspicion and blame interrupted by occasional bouts of brutal violence and queasy images of sexualised assault, graphically depicted in usually fairly unsparing detail. This is a portrait of a community in crisis and denial, its inhabitants buckling under a clammy and oppressive atmosphere of paranoia that is only enhanced by the increased frequency of the killings and attacks while the ranks of the authorities are closing to protect the failing investigation. The screenplay offers many -- perhaps too many -- side-plots that occur in tandem with the investigation and the political can of worms it threatens to open up. Among these threads is the complicated relationship that develops between Ákos’s sister Rita and the investigating cop Bóta who presided over the flawed interrogation that led to Ákos’s false confession. It is a relationship that is founded on a simmering mixture of resentment (on her part) and guilt (on his), mixed in with an attraction that threatens to spark at any moment into a typically ill-considered and ultimately doomed romance. Meanwhile, the activities of the real killer, a truck driver (Károly Hajduk), who is known to both Rita and her imprisoned brother, continue apace, with the sexual motives behind his violent crimes intensifying and becoming more perverse with each grisly murder. 


One twist to the proceedings during this part of the tale sees the murderer at one point accidentally attacking his own wife, who he mistakes on a darkened street for a prostitute because she wears a wig bought specifically to try and spice up the couple’s moribund love life. She escapes her attacker, but thereafter feels like there was something familiar about him that she can’t quite pin down (a variant of a common trope employed in the gialli of Dario Argento). It takes her the rest of the film to figure out what that is and who, therefore, the killer must be: her feeling of déjà vu turns out to have been caused by the attacker’s laboured breathing, which, she realises, is the same as that of her husband’s during sex!


If all this wasn’t quite enough to be cracking on with, there is also a clear visual signifier being employed in having the innocent Ákos and the unsuspected killer look almost physically identical, setting up a Hitchcockian Wrong Man motif based around an implied transposition of guilt that links the two by contrasting the murderer’s lack of remorse and increasing daring and carelessness in his choice of victim with Ákos’s continued feelings of guilt over the way he had formerly treated the girlfriend who became the first victim of the killer eight years ago. Both men have strained relationships with wives and are remote from their young sons: Ákos because he left his family for another woman and has been in prison ever since, and the killer because in rejecting the moral norms of society in order to pursue his desires he has become detached from family life in general. To bring the symbolic connection to a head the two men actually meet up halfway through the film when the killer, who is an old acquaintance, is shown visiting Ákos in prison, ironically, to offer personal support for his appeal against his conviction! This is where the idea espoused by Katana, and mentioned at the start of this piece, comes in to play: while in the Hitchcock universe it is the Catholic variant of an all-seeing God who has the power to decide who is guilty and who can be punished or forgiven, in communist Hungary it’s the power of the State which makes such decisions of life or death, according to the impenetrable dictates of its internal bureaucracy.


The screenplay suffers from a few too many hanging plot threads that never really develop into anything concrete. It goes to an awful lot of effort, for instance, to lay early emphasis on one of the first victims to survive after experiencing a brutal hammer attack: we wait in suspense to see if she will gain consciousness, and we begin to suspect that the killer has tracked her to the hospital intending to finish the job before she can wake to provide the police with a possible description of him. However, despite the killer actually being provided with a pretext for visiting the ward as a concerned relative of his attacked wife, nothing eventually comes story-wise of this issue, and the surviving victim disappears from the narrative in favour of the above-mentioned plot strands.  


What the film does consistently do well, though, is to capture the suffocating dread and almost subterranean nature of the barren life of drudgery and mundane factory work that provides the social backdrop to the terrible events depicted. It does this with the aid of Gábor Szabó’s take on the neo-noir visual style which relies primarily on shadow-drenched night-time cinematography that serves up a dim colour palette of swampy greens and waterlogged browns filtered through a murky neon half-light. When we are treated to beautifully photographed daytime vistas that reveal the bucolic nature of the forested areas that surround the industrialised regions of the town, they are invariably accompanied by images of untold horrors now no longer obscured by shadows: the stark aftermath of the killer's ferocious violence and sadism. 


The bloated corpses of numerous strangulated female victims, dumped in a lake and later nibbled at by fish, are routinely discovered and examined in forensically sickening detail. This is one of the more surprising elements in a film that reportedly did well commercially in its native land: there is a level of detail in the filming and depiction of the results of a sexualised form of violence carried out against females of all ages that is, even now, rare to see presented this upfront outside the more exploitation-heavy examples of the Italian Giallo. This is a feature that will undoubtedly turn off many casual viewers. I was reminded on numerous occasions of similarly outrageous scenes from the 1980s that can be found in works such as the notorious The New York Ripper by Lucio Fulci, and in Camillo Teti’s The Killer is Still Among Us. As is also the case with the latter example, the violence reaches a crescendo of misogynist disgust with the final murder to be shown in the film, by which point the killer has become so inured to the violence he has inflicted on his dying victims that the only way he can experience the former pleasure he used to get from his necrophiliac pastimes is to impose mutilations on the corpse by surgically removing his victim’s breasts after death. 

If you have the stomach for such grim material, Árpád Sopsits has created with Strangled a rigorously professional take on a particularly lurid moment in Hungarian history, packaging it in a digestible thriller format while employing all the tricks redolent of the modern noir form, which includes its tense, robust score by Márk Moldvai and a conclusion that, despite apparently seeing the status quo restored and justice being served, is still as bleak and cynical as any ending in the pantheon of classic noirs. 
 

The film is now available in the UK on dual-format Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Eureka Entertainment’s Montage Pictures world cinema sub-label.      

  

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Kills On Wheels (2016)

Kills on Wheels is a re-naming for English markets of a film, the second from Hungarian writer-director Attila Till, whose original Hungarian title, Tiszta Szívvel, translates as Pure Heart. A comedy action-drama that actually has heart, and is entirely character-based, is a rare thing in of itself, but, as is being foregrounded much more prominently by the English title than by the film’s Hungarian moniker, this one stands out in particular for showcasing a cast of young paraplegics and people with disabling mobility issues as the main protagonists, forging a plot where traditional gangster and action movie motifs are spun into a poignant but non-patronising examination of the sorts of issues of identity and acceptance apt to preoccupy any young teen on the cusp of adulthood, but which have even more resonance for those who daily face the challenges imposed by physical impediments and life-threatening health issues to boot. 

But the opening scene is also designed to provide opportunities for Till to signpost early that he in no way intends this to be an exercise in po-faced sentimental 'misery-mongering' that scores brownie points by portraying persons with physical disabilities as saintly martyrs or token objects of inspiration for the able-bodied. It’s a prison scene of a kind familiar to pretty much all prison movies  -- with gnarly looking cons eyeing each other up for exploitable weaknesses in the prison recreation room while pensive guards monitor them for signs of the outbreak we know is coming eventually anyway. In this instance, though, the camera gradually pans out to reveal that every single one of the prisoners is, in fact, a wheelchair user; only the prison guards patrolling them are able-bodied. As the inevitable  riot-on-wheels erupts before us, we’re being reminded -- as we also were by Miroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s 2014 movie The Tribe, in which the entire cast was made up of deaf performers -- that, although people with a common disability placed together in a regime administered by the able-bodied creates a unique culture, the resultant community will tend, of course, to be made up of just as diverse and flawed a collection of individuals as any other group would be.


At the centre of this eruption of explosive tension is ex-firefighter-turned-petty-criminal Rupaszov (Szabolcs Thuróczy), who we next see leaving the prison grounds at the end of his sentence in yet another scene that is a mainstay of the prison movie subgenre: the one in which the ex-prisoner suddenly finds himself alone outside the imposing walls of his former temporary home, realising that he has now been cut off from the institutional support network that once sustained him, as he's thrust back into an uncaring outside world. Here, Rupaszov is immediately taken under the wing of a trackie-wearing Serbian mobster boss who breeds Rottweilers, called Rados (Dusán Vitanovic). He puts Rupaslov straight to work in the unlikely role of gangland hitman, with the rationale that the goons and gangster bosses he’s to be sent to 'off' will never suspect a guy in a wheelchair – a view that soon proves itself profitably correct.


Although the movie starts with Rupaszov's tale, and looks set to go off down a Tarantino-esque road that puts smart dialogue and extreme violence on an equal footing with deliberately unrealistic, semi-comic action scenarios like the opening scene, the film in fact switches focus pretty quickly and takes us instead into the world of two young disabled friends who, like Rupaszov, have also been institutionalised, although in rather different surroundings. Instead of a prison that caters exclusively for the disabled, Zolika (Zoltán Fenyvesi) and Barba (Ádám Fekete) frequent a rehabilitation centre providing treatment, physical therapy and daily activities for young people like themselves who have a range of physicalities that restrict mobility and/or are difficult to deal with at home. Both actors actually have for real the conditions their featured characters are depicted living with: Zoli is paralysed because of a congenital spinal malformation, and, in the movie, also urgently needs a life-saving operation to support his spine and stop his organs being crushed, a likely result of the condition worsening in later life; Barba, meanwhile, although not paralysed in the same way, finds it difficult to walk or to exercise full control of his limbs. Both boys are fed up with the dull, humdrum routine that is apparently to be their lot while living under a day-care regime offering little to expand one’s horizons, despite the sincere dedication of its staff. They instead have to make do with silly acts of minor vandalism to pass the time. They are also writing and producing their own graphic novel in art class which they hope to sell at a local comics con, detailing in comic-strip form their daily struggles.



The boys meet Rupaszov when he visits the centre to undergo physical therapy. The former firefighter is offended when he spots them messing about with a fire extinguisher in the yard. The relationship is initially fraught with tension but gradually softens, and there emerges a touching bond between the three outsiders, casting Rupaszov first in the role of older brother and confidant to the boys, and then as a sort of surrogate father figure. The raspy-voiced hitman takes them on various expeditions that force the boys to venture far beyond the safe confines of the world they’d previously known. For instance, hanging with Rupaszov teaches the callow duo how to act confidently in the company of women when visiting bars and flashy nightclubs. They also accompany him as he embarks on various hope-filled but ill-fated efforts to woo a nurse he’d previously been involved with who is now imminently to be married -- a plot strand that culminates with a raucous gate-crashing of the couple's wedding reception.

Much of this is standard coming-of-age comedy-drama material, rendered all the more affecting for the pleasantly engaging performances Fenyvesi and Fekete are able to deliver as these two guileless teenagers who end up way out of their depth. Fenyvesi conveys an insular angst but is quietly soulful, while Fekete's character is the more boisterous, geeky and freewheeling of the pair. The suspense and action-drama elements of the film arise when a bewildered Zoli and Barba find themselves suddenly caught up in one of Rupaszov’s hits, pulled into the fray as make-do getaway drivers. When crime lord Rados discovers their unscheduled involvement, he demands that Rupaszov bump off the two boys to make sure all remaining loose ends are tied up, thus placing the hitman in an unenviably difficult position. 

   
 Broken family ties and imperfect friendships are at the heart of a mercurial tale that largely lands in the sweet spot between wry comedy and gritty drama. A subplot, centred on Zoli’s refusal to let his estranged father help his long-suffering mother out with the payment for his urgently needed operation, is at the emotional heart of the story and the feelings of betrayal and rejection which lie at the core of his characterisation also resurface in the main storyline, with Rupaszov agonising over a seemingly unthinkable dilemma during an initially comedic fishing expedition with the boys that provides him with the perfect opportunity to comply with Rados’s demand to get rid of them. The crime boss himself also acts as something of a father substitute for his hitman charge (with Rados’s dogs referred to by him throughout as his ‘children’), while the jobs Rupaszov is sent on involve him severing ‘family ties’ for Rados with various foreign gang lords. 


Till’s direction is fluid and his shots nicely composed, even incorporating animation into scene transitions in order to illustrate how the events of the film relate to the content of Zoli and Barba’s home-made graphic novel. The score incorporates rootsy urban folk songs and the witty script features caustic dialogue aplenty, particularly when Rupaszov chastises his slow-moving, frequently hapless accomplices as they, say, wrestle with trying to hold a pair of binoculars steady during a stake-out, or take ages unfolding a wheelchair to escape in after the completion of a job -- police sirens all the while wailing in the distance and getting ever-louder as they continue their struggle.

Till is not averse to using the protagonists’ disabilities in this way to generate both absurdist comic moments (although never at his heroes’ expense) and instances of taut suspense. The latter quality is particularly notable during a protracted set-piece which sees Rupaszov faced with a houseful of heavily armed and intensely suspicious gangsters. Afterwards, in attempting to find a wheelchair-friendly exit from the dwelling, he is forced to negotiate a yard with an extremely steep, upward-sloping pathway to the front gate, resulting in what is likely to be the most painfully snail-like getaway in the history of movies!


The film’s resolution, after a tense confrontation with Rados and his canine companions, comes in the form of a pseudo-twist of sorts that is, in truth, so flagrantly signposted it’s probably not even meant to be a twist -- although the final act does also reveal one further poignant wrinkle to the plot regarding the thematic concerns which underpin the film and connect Zolika’s resentment towards his absent father for leaving him and his mother to his ambivalent feelings about Rupaszov, in a way that is both satisfying and life-affirming.    

This likeable dark comedy is released by Eureka Entertainment in a dual format form, incorporating Blu-ray and DVD formats, as part of its new Montage Pictures range.                                                             

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Der Müde Tod (1921)

Der Müde Tod (The Weary Death), aka Destiny, considered Fritz Lang’s first great German masterpiece of the silent movie era by many, also marked the beginnings of a new chapter in the development of his cinematic career. In retrospect, it can be seen as the overture to a portentous phase in German film culture that looked, in the early-1920s -- at least as far as the rest of Europe was concerned – like producing a domestic rival to the dominating grandeur of the Hollywood machine, with Lang at the very centre of the phenomenon. This was the start of a period when the country’s epic film creations were being conceived on an ever-grander scale, as though aiming to overawe audiences with elaborate, fantastical, overarching visions of society as a vast hub of interconnecting mythic spectacle, obliquely threatened by the creeping chaos of industrial modernity. Indeed, this cinema’s brand of romance, melodrama and adventure-escapism seemed frequently quite unable to elude those constant codified references to the trials of the age spawning them. Lang’s contribution is, of course, synonymous with the period: in conjunction with the many technical specialists employed by the recently expanded UFA studios after its merger with Erich Pommer’s Decla-Bioscope, Lang and his professional and personal partner, Thea von Harbou, achieved some of the most richly imagined, densely realised visions of the day on the vast soundstages of the ‘Neubabelsberg’ complex – insulated from, and often oblivious to, the political and economic convulsions of the Weimar Republic and its social repercussions, as they raged in the streets beyond the studio perimeter.

The sequence of films Lang made in the wake of Der Müde Tod produced great work that seems as compelling and imaginative today as ever, despite, and sometimes because of, the antiquity of the methods utilised or invented by the director in bringing them to the screen. Although he lived a somewhat sybaritic lifestyle, at one remove from the uncertainties and indignities of the economic turmoil the rest of Germany was at the time being subjected to; and financially protected by the bubble of immunity his recent commercial success (and the critical acclaim which had come with it) afforded him, Weimar’s extremes and excesses continued to provide Lang with endless amounts of new material to be habitually harvested from newspaper headlines and worked, at a later date, into the feverish, elaborately structured plots that so compelled both himself and von Harbou in this, the couple’s most creative period of artistic collaboration.

The position Der Müde Tod occupies at the vanguard of this narrative, in which Fritz Lang’s artistic ascendancy parallels the increasing sophistication of the German film industry’s production methods, largely emerges in retrospect. Upon its initial release, in October 1921, the film was considered to be something of an artistic failure by many German critics, playing for only two weeks in Berlin after opening at several of the city’s most prestigious luxury theatres. The general consensus among critics at home was that the fantasy and swashbuckling content of a 'traditional' Fritz Lang picture had been overburdened here by a certain air of pretentiousness born of Lang's attempt to imbue the material with a philosophical profundity it was not capable of sustaining, and which the film overall did not truly possess. Its extravagant symbolism and allegorical content served only to confuse, bogging the story down rather than opening it up to wider imaginative possibilities. However, the film's reception throughout the rest of Europe could not have been more in contrast to these dismissive readings of its worth in Germany. In countries such as Britain and France, it was universally praised for the originality of its content, the boldness of its imagination, and the impressiveness of Lang’s execution of the material. As Lang’s biographer Patrick McGilligan has noted, Der Müde Tod would become a famous example of  'a German motion picture rejected in Germany itself that was given a second chance at home on the strength of rhapsodic foreign notices.'


Up until this point, Lang’s success in Germany had been built on the back of a series of pictures that mixed melodrama and heroic adventure with a taste for offbeat pseudo-science leavened with a dash of Oriental mysticism -- elements rooted in Lang’s childhood love of pulp fiction and penny dreadful crime literature. Both he and von Harbou shared an enduring appreciation for the work of the prolific German author Karl May, whose adventure novels were usually set in a mythical Old West, or else would contain exotic and unrealistic depictions of the Orient or of the Middle East. As a young man, soon after leaving his native Vienna, Lang developed a great passion for exotic cultural artefacts and folk art belonging to foreign or “primitive” cultures, including paintings, statues and masks from China, Japan or Polynesia. According to his own accounts and those of the colleagues and contemporaries who often visited the couple at home, the apartment he later shared with von Harbou became a virtual museum dedicated to this interest in foreign exotica. Von Harbou’s office included among its treasures Lang’s cherished ‘cabinet of the thousand delights’; and the first thing a visitor would see upon entering the couple’s apartment was the director's personal collection of shrunken human scalps!

Lang’s early solo screenwriting work for Erich Pommer and Joe May, as well as the earliest movies he directed from this period such as Des Spinnen (The Spiders), came replete with decorative elements inspired by the orientalist trappings for which this genre of literature was to become notorious. These early screenplays and films of Lang’s feature doomed romances and stolen Inca treasure hoards aplenty and are led by athletic yet intelligent (and bookish) German adventuring heroes who are invariably to be found exploring hidden underground cities or discovering exotic lost civilisations; not to mention the secret criminal fraternities dedicated to world domination that are so often two-a-penny in fictional worlds such as this.

After Der Müde Tod all of these elements would inform Lang’s cinema for as long as he continued working in Germany, but the sophistication of the techniques increasingly being brought to bear on the narrative structures deployed in von Harbou’s screenplays meant that there needed to be corresponding developments in the film grammar Lang was using to translate them onto the screen. These developments were occurring just as Erich Pommer’s Decla-Bioscope was being merged with UFA to create the biggest and most sophisticated machine for movie production outside of the Hollywood studio system. Lang’s cinema from Der Müde Tod onward came to be associated with a unique melding of low art and grand vision: in Lang's cinema, pulp cliché worked harmoniously alongside poetic craft, somehow facilitating a greater existential heft than had been evident in any of his previous work. When Der Müde Tod was re-released in Germany in the wake of its fantastic reception elsewhere in Europe, it played for weeks and catapulted Lang into the upper echelons of UFA’s filmmaking elite. The film became the cornerstone on which Lang's subsequent reputation for synthesizing spectacle-based entertainment with existential profundity was to be built.


Der Müde Tod is an anthology picture made up of three separate narratives, each set in wildly diverse historical and geographical contexts but thematically linked by a phantasmagorical framing story. This dreamy linking tale contrasts the content of the other stories, exemplifying a poetic and aesthetic tone much in keeping with the sense that German culture had reached a crux point after WW1 wherein traditional Romanticism could now be blended with pre-war forms of Modernism in art. The results of this visual concoction anticipate the look and feel of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (released the following year in 1922) and explore the fantastical escapist mythical-medievalist landscapes of Faust (1926), five years before that big-budget UFA film became Murnau’s last film made in Germany. Elements of Expressionism are heavily in evidence for the first time in Lang’s cinema during this picture, which also marks Lang’s introduction to the genius cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner. An important and innovative cameraman who worked on two of the most visually resplendent stories in Der Müde Tod, Wagner's distinctive style was later to become synonymous with cinematic Expressionism: a form of visual stylisation later to be incorporated into Hollywood’s conception of the Gothic Horror and Noir film genres when Germany's best directors and technicians, having been forced to flee their homes after the Nazi takeover, wound up working on many such films in America. Wagner would go on to shoot several of Lang’s best German films, including M, and he was involved with many of the greatest German movies and directors of the silent era, such as F.W. Murnau (Wagner photographed Nosferatu) and G.W. Pabst. Wagner is said to have been one of the few among Lang’s close collaborators who could tolerate the director’s sometimes harsh and dictatorial ways. In this first piece of work together they manage to develop some genuinely innovative techniques for shooting 35mm film in low-light conditions, experimenting with reflective images in mirrors, and capturing the mingling of light and shadow on the dappled water surfaces of a studio-constructed Venice by night.  


The film opens on a country road near a crossroads. Here the pale, monk-like figure of Death -- personified as a wispy-haired, heavy-browed man in black – boards a coach occupied by a youthful couple who are in love and en route for a quaint, rustic German hamlet situated across the next bridge. The film is pitched in a non-realist register existing somewhere between allegorical dream-space, legend and fairy tale. It is a tone suggested by Lang’s exacting use of poetic language in the opening credits and in the first few intertitles. Described as ‘a German Folk Song in Six Verses’, the cast list for the following framing story describes the events depicted as taking place ‘somewhere, sometime’; and the opening intertitle sets the unreal scene by describing the crossroads, the little town, and by extension the young couple heading towards it, as being ‘lost in a valley, as if in a dream’. This fatalistic, melancholic storybook tone is further reinforced by a description of autumn leaves which are said to [be] ‘falling like tears’.

Despite the film sporting a credit identifying Fritz Lang as both writer and director, in reality, Thea von Harbou was involved with drafting the script from its conception. It undoubtedly displays many of the elaborate storytelling traits she had first begun using in her several previous collaborations with Lang, as evidenced by the film’s sophisticated use of framing devices; its flashbacks and occasional digressions; and its concertina-like manipulations of time and space. Lang first met von Harbou while they were both working on projects for the producer-director Joe May. Aristocratic in bearing and privileged in upbringing, she was, by all accounts, precociously talented from a tender age and fully emancipated by early womanhood -- which is when she began earning a living in theatre and as a writer in post-war Berlin. But Thea von Harbou was also supremely nationalistic, becoming especially more so with the onset of World War 1. Her novels were known for the patriotic sentiment underpinning their mythic subject matter: they dealt in Germanic legends recalibrated as allegorical celebrations of sacrifice to the glorious Fatherland and would take on a much darker meaning later, when von Harbou fully embraced the doctrine of Nazism.


Though not a medium she had ever previously been particularly interested in exploring, the world of cinema began to fill more and more of von Harbou’s creative life after her discovery that May had optioned one of her novels for adaptation. Soon after, she landed a job writing original scenarios for Joe May’s production company, May-Film GmbH, and her ensuing relationship with Lang, both creative and personal (after she divorced the actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge, von Harbou and Lang became one of Weimar Germany’s premier celebrity couples) would secure her controversial position in film history, even though, during the 1920s, she was destined to become one of German cinema’s most celebrated writers thanks to other collaborations with titans such as F.W. Murnau, Carl Dreyer and E.A. Dupont. Early on, Lang and von Harbou found that they shared many interests, including a connoisseurship of Karl May’s fiction and a love of foreign cultures. The director had planned on adapting von Harbou’s 1917 novel Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb), but the project was ‘stolen’ away from him by Joe May, who, believing the property destined to be a success, determined to direct the film himself! When Lang finished his partnership with May and returned to Erich Pommer, he brought von Harbou with him to Decla-Bioscope, and the couple worked on several more projects there, Lang bringing more and more sophistication to his filmmaking craft with each new release. Der Müde Tod finally crystallised itself as the purest expression of a theme that, despite von Harbou’s involvement in it, made this film a deeply personal project for Lang -- perhaps one of the most personal he ever conceived.  


This is a film about the existential tragedy that dwells at the core of human existence: the knowledge possessed by each of us that our lives are ultimately circumscribed by the inevitability of our own demise. It’s a dramatisation of the tension between fate and free will, and an examination of the struggle to find purpose and meaning in a world that can seem cold and indifferent to personal suffering. Despite adopting the guise of a romantic allegorical fable, and seeking to entertain with poetic flights of the imagination that deliver many moments of adventure, intrigue, comedy and exotic fantasy, the conclusion it reaches is far from comforting: life is nothing without the struggle to find and hold onto love, but love is always doomed from the  first moment of inception.


This potentially maudlin approach to the film's subject was inevitably informed by Lang’s personal circumstances: his mother had died in 1920, while Lang was on an arduous shoot in the Bavarian Alps filming Das wandernde Bild (The Wandering Image). At the time, the director had felt unable to curtail filming so that he could attend the funeral. But of even more shocking significance was the recent death by apparent suicide of Lang’s first wife, Lisa Rosenthal, which probably occurred (although almost everything about the event is shrouded in mystery) at around the time when Lang and von Harbou were prepping for Der Müde Tod, between late-1920 and early-1921. Lang claimed to have found his wife’s dead body in the bath, the victim of a fatal gunshot wound to the chest. Only a matter of hours before the incident she had walked in on her husband and Thea von Harbou to find the couple sharing an illicit moment of intimacy. Lang’s own revolver – a Browning automatic, retained from his service during WW1 – had apparently fallen from her hand and was found on the floor at the side the bathtub. However, there was never a full and official police inquiry into the matter, and all record of the incident had disappeared from Berlin police files when researchers later attempted to look more closely at the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. Lang had made many enemies on his way to becoming Germany’s most acclaimed film director; some of them, like the cinematographer Karl Freund, always believed that he had been directly responsible for Lisa Rosenthal’s murder, either pulling the trigger himself or else deliberately neglecting to attain medical assistance until it was too late to save her. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is hard to ignore the coincidence that the heroine of Der Müde Tod is also distinguished by her willingness to contemplate suicide for the sake of love -- a feature that plays a significant role in the development of a plot which involves the young woman entering a shadowy candle-lit netherworld suspended outside of chronological time, in the moment between life and a possible death, where she confronts the personification of Death himself as part of an attempt to rescue her lover from his realm.

The idea of presenting Death in a human form, as an entity who is capable of interacting with mortals and bargaining with them for the souls of their loved ones (much imitated since on film, most notably in Ingmar Berman’s The Seventh Seal) was a stroke of conceptual inspiration that, according to Lang, was also rooted in a personal experience: a childhood dream Lang experienced while in the throes of a fever, in which he imagined seeing a dark stranger in a wide brimmed hat approach his bed by moonlight with outstretched arms, as though the figure were about to lead him away. This description provided the model for actor Bernhard Goetzke’s portrayal of Death as a sepulchral spectral entity, weary of his eternal role in human affairs and desperate to be relieved of it. The trauma of this vision gave Lang, in his own somewhat melodramatic words “[a] complete understanding of the ecstasy which made martyrs and saints embrace death”. The experience was a formative one, and, he claimed, “a love of Death, compounded of horror and affection, stayed with me and became a part of my films.”

Yet the one event towering above all others as the central influence on the film’s morbid and melancholic obsession with the fragility of human existence must be Lang’s first-hand experience of combat during the First World War. This surely is also the reason the film came (eventually) to resonate with contemporary German audiences so widely; they belonged to a generation only too familiar with the great sacrifices the young had recently been called upon to make in that conflict which had plunged Germany into chaos at home. The Great War is, of course, the one event that dominates critical responses to a remarkable set of innovations distinguishing Germany's cinema during the Weimar period, foremost amongst them being its turn toward the art movement Expressionism, which came to be seen as a convenient visual marker and shorthand for the internal psychological turmoil of the individual. But this was a picture made by a director who came out of this terrible conflict as a decorated war hero; who signed up for the Austro-Hungarian Army in January 1915 and reached the rank of second lieutenant by October of that same year; and who now liked to run his film sets like he was a commander who'd been placed at the head of a vast army of conscripts. 

Lang had been caught up in the initial excitement marking the early months of the war, entering into the fighting with zeal and with a spirit of the whole thing being a big adventure. His experiences, though, prefigure those encountered by the characters in this film: they start off full of hope and expectation for the future but end up possessing only the knowledge that death is the one inescapable certainty awaiting them. Lang had been assigned to a reconnaissance patrol involved in fighting the Russian army on the Eastern Front; he was decorated for bravery and courageousness many times, but also injured on several occasions as the fighting became more brutal and the position of the Austro-Hungarians more desperate. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1916, having had his horse shot out from under him when a mortar shell exploded nearby, and it was while on leave, recovering from damage to his eye caused by shrapnel (which may have been responsible for Lang adopting the famous monocle he wore for the rest of his life), that he first started writing script scenarios for Joe May. However, in the latter stages of the war, a fatigue and weariness set in and the director later described his experiences of the battlefield horrors he encountered during 1918, as having shown him “life stripped to its rawest: hunger and desperation and death.” In his biography of the director, McGilligan writes how death now became for Lang like ‘an old acquaintance, a sobering reality, not an abstraction.’


This is the background to a picture that takes Lang’s love of adventure fiction, as well as an interest, shared with Thea von Harbou, in the mythologies of various foreign lands, in particular India  -- the story owes some debt to the Indian mythological tale of Sati Savitri, which is about a princess who brings her husband back from the dead by outwitting the Indian god of Death -- and combines them in a richly realised portmanteau piece, revelling in visual excitement and diverse aesthetic wonders. The film’s look prefigures the joint influences of Romanticism and Expressionism that would also find an outlet in the mise-en-scene of Murnau’s Nosferatu, released the following year. To bring about this, his most ambitious work yet, Lang worked closely with the Decla production design and art directing team of Robert Herlth, Walter Röhrig and Hermann Warm. The director was also acting as his own editor and augmenting the sumptuous and stimulating set designs of his team with any number of innovative in-camera special effects of his own devising.

Both Röhrig and Warm had been involved in helping Walter Reimann create the jagged, exaggerated abstract landscapes so famously painted onto the walls of the Decla studio for the filming of Robert Wiene’s Das Kabinett des Dr Caligari. Warm would later work with Carl Theodor Dreyer on The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr, re-creating that unique tonal nexus (situated somewhere between realism and fantasy) which turns up first, here -- in Der Müde Tod. The film’s vividly detailed evocation of a unusual and exotic collection of fantastical locations -- the pastoral medievalist idyll on which the film settles during the opening framing story; Death’s sombre walled-off Cathedral-like realm, haunted by its ghostly spectres and the looming flicker of shadows; and the historical settings seen in the film’s three love story segments: ninth century Bagdad, Renaissance Venice, and a fabulist fairy tale version of Middle Kingdom Imperial China  -- are conjured for the screen by the designers with an astonishing attention to detail and brought to life through beautifully designed costumes and make-up. Some elements of the aesthetic look seem to prefigure the fantasy Gothic of Murnau’s 1926 film Faust, which was also designed by the team of Röhrig and Herlth.


The film starts in naturalistic mode. In anticipation of Murnau’s Nosferatu, we open on a coach journey that presents us with daylight exterior shots of countryside locations. Not long after, Goetzke’s cloaked Death figure materialises at a crossroads marked by a crucifix (via what looks like a double-exposed image of a firework explosion), hitching a lift with the stage-coach carrying our love-struck protagonists, who take the form of a recently engaged couple played by Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen. The travelling partners cross a tiny bridge leading to a rustic village, and we are almost immediately exposed to a sense of this enclosed space’s heightened unreality: the town square -- built on the lot at Decla’s Babelsberg Studio, and first seen via an elevated long-shot that accentuates the centrality of the clock tower -- displays a certain quaintness, an old-world charm that feels meticulously designed to appear both artificial and archaic. The town’s central inn, the Golden Unicorn, introduces us to a rich collection of auxiliary characters who have little relevance to the main storyline but who provide some amusing Dickensian satirical colour, before introducing a flashback explaining the cloaked stranger’s curious relationship with the town. Here we learn that the weary figure has come here to retire and cultivate his own private garden; the bibulous, unworldly, gluttonous town dignitaries have been only too pleased to accept a handsome sum for selling him the plot of land previously reserved for extending the neglected local cemetery, but are nonplussed when they learn that the stranger has had the entire area surrounded and sealed off with an impenetrable stone wall that is too high to scale and has no discernible points of access or ingress. Ominously, it appears that Death has now made his permanent home in this otherwise tranquil area of bucolic seclusion.

Flashback scenes depicting Bernhard Goetzke’s gaunt but imposing stranger, shrouded entirely in black, visiting his newly purchased property – all crumbling arches and overgrowing ivy – whilst a gravedigger prepares to inter yet another ‘customer’ nearby, cannot but help lead one’s thoughts to the story of Dracula, which, of course, in both its original novel form and in the numerous film adaptations that have followed, also hinges on the Count moving to a new land -- England -- on the pretext of having recently purchased the derilict Carfax Abbey. When we cut back to the present goings on inside the inn and immediately witness this dark figure steal away the soul of bland paramour Walter Janssen from under the very nose of his beleaguered fiancée (the couple having just shared the ill-omen of spilling some wine whilst attempting to drink together from the bridal cup), we’re inclined to see this personification of Death in the same light (or should that be moonlight?) as Stoker’s now famous vampire creation: a malign, evil force, preying on the vulnerabilities of the unsuspecting and the uncomprehending. Such inclinations are re-enforced by the macabre overtones (soon to be associated forever with depictions of the Gothic on film) underlying the images and scenarios presented to us in the immediate aftermath of this bewildering supernatural event: distraught, and almost delirious in her grief, the young girl stumbles through the darkening town and, in her emotionally receptive state, witnesses a procession of transparent ghostly figures drifting zombie-like towards the edifice constructed by the stranger, then disappearing through its solid stone walls … one of them being her fiancé. She then falls into the orbit of a wizened old apothecary who’s out digging for unusual-looking roots on a nearby hillside in the dead of night, and winds up being taken back to his shadowy cluttered shop where a phrase from a verse in the Song of Solomon stands out in the pages of an open Bible  -- ‘love is stronger than death’ -- tempting her into poisoning herself so that she may be joined with her lover in the afterlife.


This segment of the film is particularly suggestive of the fantasy Gothic mode. Those strange, misshapen nocturnal landscapes amid which the bereaved girl flounders as somnambulating spirits drift by, were artfully created and constructed in the controlled environment of a studio to imply the appropriately saturnine state of bewitchment and delirium; while the old apothecary’s shop – indeed the old apothecary himself – is depicted by Lang as looking strange and crooked and redolent of an exaggerated form of theatricality. What occurs next in the narrative is a piece of conceptual alchemy that barely registers on one’s initial viewing, yet does something unexpectedly radical with the film’s depiction of time, identity and the chronology of events in order to have the story ‘jump tracks’ for the next hour, continuing on a new, unidentifiable metaphysical plane that folds most of the rest of the film into a single second of narrative time. It’s possible to argue that the very possibility of a surrealist form of cinema was created with this daring conceit, for it even has echoes in something as recent as the sequence from the penultimate episode of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Return, in which time seems to become arrested at a certain juncture in the main narrative, and an entirely new timeline (possibly) establishes itself to appear as if superimposed on a frozen moment of the ‘present’. It shouldn’t be surprising then that this film also made such a strong formative impression on Luis Bunuel, who has cited Der Müde Tod as a prime influence on his approach to filmmaking.

The moment of rupture occurs just after Lil Dagover lifts the bottle of poison to her lips in the apothecary’s shop. A different image, still of Dagover, but which now places her before the imposing stone wall built by the stranger on the site of the town cemetery, is superimposed across the preceding scene, fading into view to replace the former scenario a split-second before the poison would have been swallowed. Nevertheless, we assume on first viewing that the young woman must either now be dead or in the process of dying from the effects of the lethal tincture, as the figure of Death himself now approaches and leads her through the wall into his cavernous, cathedral-like domain. Later we will learn that everything that occurs after the superimposition of the scene outside the wall takes place during the one-second interval before the poison is dashed from the young woman's lips by the apothecary. Does this mean that everything we see of Dagover in Death’s domain has been erased, and an alternate timeline set in place as part of the bargain she goes on to strike whilst (not) there? Or did everything we witness take place in a kind of dream dimension, to be spliced into a fold of the framing narrative? 

The status of events which occur beyond the ‘wall of Death’ will remain ambiguous, for this is also the site at which Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen’s two lovers are 'injected' into the three historical narratives of romance and adventure that constitute the central section of the movie -- illustrating Lang and von Harbou’s inventive knack for mixing genres and incorporating a philosophical or spiritual element into apparently low ‘pulp’ material. Death’s vast candle-lit realm consists of a majestic cathedral space created to suggest to viewers some symbolic sense of eternal reverence. The flames of a multitude of tall, flickering wax candles in the darkened chamber provide the only source of light amid monolithic Gothic arches, supposedly representing the souls of every person currently living on Earth, as well as of all those who have ever previously lived, or who someday will – an idea taken from one of Grimm’s fairy tales. It turns out that Death is not the predatory spectre we had previously thought; he is merely God’s unwilling emissary, tasked with guiding imperishable souls to the next stage of a non-corporeal state-of-being when a pre-determined moment arrives in the chronology of the Universe. Furthermore, he is demonstrably sick and tired of his thankless role in the eternal sorrows of humankind. "I hate my duty ... though I obey," he sorrowfully informs the young woman. Played by the stern-faced and furrow-browed Bernhard Goetzke, who would also be cast as the starchy-but-decent Inspector Von Wenk in Lang’s Dr Mabuse: the Gambler, Death here represents fate: he sees that the mortality of human beings is a fixed unalterable feature of their existence however one may tinker with chronology or time, and he seeks to demonstrate this to the young woman as she begs for the soul of her departed fiancé. He points to a flame from one of the candles as it begins to fade out, indicating how it also represents the departing soul of a small child who has, just at that very moment perished in the local infirmary and is now, literally, materialising before her eyes into Death’s cold embrace.


But the young woman is determined to prove her deathly host wrong and is convinced that she will be able to do so. Death assures her, "I would bless you if you could conquer me!" … And so the battle between love and fate commences: Death offers to relinquish his hold on the woman’s lover if she can save but one of three souls currently represented by a trio of guttering candles whose flames are on the verge of being extinguished, their wax almost having been completely consumed. The film now tells the stories of the three great love affairs associated with these flames in the form of parables infused with magic, adventure and derring-do. Walter Janssen and Lil Dagover get reincarnated each time as three different sets of embattled lovers, each facing the threat of separation through the grievous challenges posed by mortality. Their stories take place in radically different historical epochs and are thus separated by time, geography and racial identity (the Germanic folk couple become by turns Persian, Venetian and Han Chinese) -- yet they all suffer the same hopeless struggle to avert a fate which will invariably be handed to them by someone in their midst who shares the physiognomy of Bernhard Goetzke’s personification of Death, or else someone who assumes his form once the moment of separation-by-death arrives. 

All three stories temporarily divert the film from a brooding, Gothic atmosphere of folk allegory with occult leanings indicative of the opening acts, and back into the realm of the pulp adventure material and Jules Verne inspired fantasy which had formerly made up the best of Lang’s cinema till now. The stories themselves are slight but retain the ability to impress thanks to their opulent staging, detailed set dressing and baroque costuming. The Méliès-like riot of inventive in-camera special effects, experiments with alternative aspect ratios and framing, superimpositions and stop-motion animation unleashed by Lang here, injects a playful energy and a sense of fairy tale wonder into proceedings, allowing this middle part of the film to retain the charm of its primitive, hand-crafted effects nearly a hundred years after they were originally created. Such trappings distinguish the film as a historical forerunner to the adventure fantasy cinema of visionaries such as Karel Zeman and Ray Harryhausen. Many of Lang's special effects ideas were later purloined by producer and film star Douglas Fairbanks after he bought the American distribution rights but held back the release of the film in the U.S. In the meantime, he worked on re-staging some of the best of Lang's effects for his own big-budget production of Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

All three differing tales cohere around the opening sections, despite the vastly different tone set during them, thanks to the commanding presence of lead actress Lil Dagover (1887 -1980) – who, to a modern viewership, is probably one of the most recognisable German screen actresses of the 1920s thanks to her role as the heroine in Robert Wiene’s ground-breaking horror masterpiece Das Kabinett des Dr Caligari. Lang had previously cast the young actress as the "Priestess of the Sun" in Part one of the two-part adventure series Des Spinnen, where she played the scantily-clad native love interest to the story’s dashing hero, and is killed off at the end by the film’s villainess to set up the revenge theme that kicks off part two. She appeared in Lang’s next film, Harakiri, as an exotic Japanese beauty, but her most diverting appearance -- although it was also her final lead in a Fritz Lang film -- was as the unnamed protagonist of Der Müde Tod. It’s a performers’ showcase that gives her the opportunity to take on three more delightful costumed parts in the film’s middle section, where she plays Princess Zobeide in the Arabian Nights-themed opener; the tragic Monna Fiametta in the Shakespearian middle story; and magician’s assistant Tiao Tsien in the fantastical Chinese folk tale which brings this portion of the film to a close. In all three stories, Dagover plays a romantic heroine whose forbidden love for Walter Janssen’s various (but always-doomed) suitors results in heartbreak and tragedy. It has to be said that in each of the tales Dagover completely outshines her insipid co-star, who is so nondescript he barely registers as a factor in any appreciation of their merits. Each of the stories is named in reference to the three candles from Death’s realm representing the souls of the three doomed lovers Dagover must attempt to save; and each story is preceded by a listing of its individual cast members alongside their specific roles – a self-reflexive conceit emphasising the theatricality and artifice at play throughout these vignettes. This, perhaps, goes some way towards mitigating what to a modern audience often looks like outmoded racial stereotyping which is present in the staging of a series of stories that rely on Germanic actors blacking up or donning elaborate make-up disguises to enable them to play a succession of Middle-Eastern or Chinese character roles. All the stories have been stripped down to their simplest genre elements and are staged as fabulous, unrealistic and gaudy visual spectacles; a description that applies equally well to the performances as it does the settings.          




The first tale is the shortest and the simplest. Dagover is the sister, Princess Zobeide, of the Caliph of Baghdad, and is in love with a French infidel (Janssen). When this becomes known to the Caliph (Eduard von Winterstein) he initiates a manhunt which leads to a succession of action scenes (desperate chases, sword fights, elaborate rooftop escapes and the scaling the palace walls, etc.) which take place against matte-painted backdrops depicting Islamic architectural skylines or in the vividly ornamented interiors of set-constructed palaces and mosques. The ostentation of masculine desire when expressed in violent passions, is conveyed through constant frenetic movement and activity. The veiled female heroine must survive by quietly nurturing her hopes and dreams within the constrictions of an opulent but brutal patriarchal system. Her stillness, decorum and restraint are tactical, yet she is out-manoeuvred when she is manipulated without the ability to intervene, into witnessing the slow torture and death of her lover after he is caught and buried in the Caliph’s garden with just his head protruding above ground!

The second tale occurs in Renaissance Venice during the carnival season, and features Thea von Harbou’s first husband, Rudolph Klein-Rogge, as the ruthless Girolamo: a powerful councillor who, having learned of his fiancée’s love for handsome nobleman Gianfrancesco (Walter Janssen again, of course), arranges to have the rival assassinated, but sadistically informs his unwilling bride-to-be of the plot in advance. Dagover, this time playing the trapped Monna Fiametta, fights back and initiates a counterplan involving a clandestine letter writing scheme that unfortunately turns out not to be quite clever enough, and gets subverted by Girolamo with his even-more-devious counter-counterplan. Lang’s love of French director Louis Feuillade comes across strongly in the story’s delightful intrigues, which occur amid baroque settings, and culminate with Lil Dagover assuming a distinctly Musidora-like appearance when she shows up, masked and attired in a one-piece catsuit (a la Irma Vep, from Feuillade’s Les Vampires), for a climactic fencing showdown that climaxes with her being tricked into allowing her servant to murder her own lover from behind a curtained partition. She has been misled by Girolamo's Machiavellian intrigues to erroneously believe that her evil fiancé was sent the letter she specifically wrote in order to get him to turn up for a rendezvous wearing carnival costume and mask, when in fact Girolamo has made sure that Gianfrancesco was the unlucky recipient of the missive.

The last of the three stories is the best of the bunch. It features Max Reinhardt graduate Paul Biensteldt as A Hi: an elderly master magician in a fantasy version of ancient China, designed with the help of a curator from the Ethnographical Museum in Hamburg, Heinrich Umlauff. A Hi commands the use of a magic wand and a flying carpet, thus providing plenty of opportunities for many showy special effects, the most successful of which is a sentient letter scroll that unspools itself and comes to life through the use of a stop-motion animation technique and process Lang insisted on painstakingly conducting himself. Biensteldt gives a delightful comic performance as the wizened and whiskery little magician furnished with the dubious privilege of entertaining the Emperor of China (Karl Huszar) with magic tricks for his Birthday at the Emperor’s imperial palace Pagoda in Shanghai, the only slight reservation being the promise of a certain death by beheading if the Emperor should become bored with A Hi’s act at any point during the performance.


The master magician has an apprentice working with him called Liang (Walter Janssen), who is in love with A Hi's young female assistant Tiao Tsien (Dagover). Both travel with him on a magic carpet ride across deserts and mountains to meet with the Emperor, who is played by Hungarian-born slapstick star of the silent era Huszar as a giggling, plump potentate with extended talons for fingernails that give him the air of a sociopathic Buddha with distinct Freddy Krueger vibes. Unfortunately, all the miniaturised armies and conjured white horses in the world that A Hi furnishes as gifts using his magical powers, won’t deter the Emperor from demanding the one thing he truly craves as soon as he catches sight of Liang’s lover: and that is for Tiao Tsien to be made the latest addition to his household of concubines. A Hi feels he has no choice but to betray his two young companions, and the final act of this tale sees  a vengeful Tiao Tsien turning her master into a human cactus using his own wand, which she then also uses to magic the prison guards holding her lover into pigs and to help Liang escape his cell on the back of an elephant. The couple embarks on a journey into a magical fantasy landscape, created in-studio, through which the two are then hunted by the Emperor’s master archer. Eventually, this archer, who has the same visage as Death himself (and is also being played by Goetzke), manages to track down his quarry; and in a sequence anticipating the potent Gothic fairy tale surrealism of Jean Cocteau’s finest cinema, the cornered Tiao Tsien attempts to disguise Liang by turning him into a proud tiger -- only to witness the archer kill it anyway with an arrow to the heart. She then turns herself into a statue of a Bodhisattva -- weeping real tears at the foot of her fallen lover.  



With all three candles irrevocably snuffed out, the young woman, back in Death’s cavernous realm after her three fruitless adventures, realises she has failed in her mission to save the soul of her lover from Death’s grasp. Even so, she is given one last gasp chance to succeed: Death informs her that he will let the couple live on together after all -- if she can deliver a replacement soul from someone willing to take her fiancé's place. At this point, the woman is transported back to the old apothecary’s shop, just at the moment when he knocks the cup of poison from her hand. At first, she tries to persuade the aged apothecary to give up his few remaining years to her, but he will not hear of sacrificing even a second of precious life: 'Not a single day! Not a single hour! Not a single breath!' 

No matter how impoverished or exhausted or decrepit they may look, she finds that everyone she petitions greets her with this same refrain. Life is too precious a commodity for it to be voluntarily given up for the sake of another; even the old will not make such a sacrifice for the young when they have a choice in the matter. But a fire in the infirmary (caused accidentally by a flame from a candle knocked over) provides the young woman with her final desperate chance; if she is prepared to exchange the life of one of the new-borns, trapped in the nursery by the blaze, for that of her lover. At the last moment, she realises that she cannot possibly go through with such a selfish act, no matter how much she loves her fiancé: she has now accepted the principle, espoused by Death all along, that everyone’s time is allotted in a greater design. In finally accepting this idea, she achieves a higher level of Enlightenment than the materialistic villagers who surround her; although her material form now perishes in the conflagration after she throws the imperilled baby from the infirmary window to be caught by its distraught mother, who is waiting amongst the crowd of onlookers gathered outside. In this way, she, at last, finds a kind of reunion with her lover: under the sheltering cloak of Death … who now guides the spirits of the couple on their final journey.


With its sweetly despairing mood juxtaposing a sweepingly romantic poetic vision, the thematic resonance such a film must have held for German society at this point in its history, when it had only recently witnessed its young cut down at the behest of a generation beset by traditionalism and corruption, only enhances Der Müde Tod's joint standing as an important development in cine-history and the first truly great achievement in the career of Fritz Lang. Its fabulous costumes and impressive sets and Lang’s increasingly fluid and sophisticated visual language, all lighted a pathway towards the coming grandeur of the UFA years (which, ironically, Lang would be the one to jeopardize with his indulgent extravagances over Metropolis) and set a high standard other directors would now endeavour to match or surpass.

This UK dual format Masters of Cinema release from Eureka Entertainment presents a reconstruction of the original Decla edit. The original camera negatives and tinted prints made in 1921 are lost, so this 2016 2K digital restoration by The Murnau Foundation utilises two surviving black and white export negatives (from the Museum of Modern Art in New York and la Cinémathèque de Toulouse) and makes use of intertitle reconstructions from the Munich Film Museum. The tinting scheme was estimated using as the guide other existing tinted films also made at around the same time by Decla-Bioscope. Cornelius Schwehr provides the film with a rousing new score performed by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the release also includes an erudite, well-researched commentary track from Tim Lucas and a video essay by David Cairns. A 44-page accompanying booklet carries an astute assessment of the film and its place in Fritz Lang’s filmography, nicely written by Philip Kemp, finishing off a great little package which brings back to vivid life one of Lang’s most playfully versatile creations. A must buy for any connoisseur of silent cinema.