The news that Fritz Lang’s Destiny (Der müde Tod) was being restored has been met with great excitement in silent film circles. A highly elaborate and influential production, Alfred Hitchcock was among its fans.
Anke Wilkening of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, which was responsible for the restoration, has kindly agreed to answer some questions about the process.
The Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung is noted for its impressive restorations. How do you go about choosing which films will be restored?
This depends basically on requests from outside, TV, DVD/BD labels.
When did you first see “Destiny”? What were your impressions of the film? Were you able to see a fairly complete version at that time?
The film has always been more or less complete. Incompleteness was not so much an issue in this restoration.
What was the condition of “Destiny” when the restoration project began?
The film was circulating in black-and-white prints. As it is a film from 1921, it must have been tinted and toned. This can be clearly observed for the numerous night scenes. They were shot either in studio, day-for-night, or – rarely – night-for-night. Hence, they vary in brightness. In 1921, defining the scenes as day or night was a post-production, a film laboratory task. Most outdoor night scenes were filmed during the day and appear as bright as day in the positives made from the negatives. Tinting the black-and-white positives with blue or green tones turned them into night scenes. The black-and-white prints provide a distorted view of the movie, because the night scenes are not recognizable as such in them.
What were the challenges of this particular restoration?
No coloured print of DER MÜDE TOD has survived. Thus, the colors were simulated based on movies produced by Decla during the same period. As blue was a code for night and red was a code for fire during the silent movie era, the choice of color was evident for these scenes. There are also several references to the choice of yellow and ivory tinting for exterior scenes, or pink tinting for indoor day scenes, and orange tinting for interior evening scenes.
The question of what color the candlelit hall should be tinted was more complicated. There are no comparables in other movies for the presentation of the kingdom of the dead as a cathedral with stalagmite-like candles. To do justice to the effect of the bright candles in the darkness of the cathedral, we focused on scenes in other films that are set in dark rooms, but which were not explicitly night scenes. Examples for such scenes exist in DER RICHTER VON ZALAMEA (Decla-Film- Gesellschaft Holz & Co. 1920, directed by Ludwig Berger), in which dungeons are toned blue and tinted light green, or the opium den in the catacombs of the city in DIE SPINNEN (Decla-Film-Gesellschaft Holz & Co. 1919/20, directed by Fritz Lang), which is tinted yellow and also toned blue. In both cases, this color combination emphasizes a dark room with minimal light sources. To emphasize the effect of burning candles, the blue tint was combined with a yellow toning.
Could you give an estimate of how many man-hours are required for a restoration of this kind?
Not in hours. But, the works containing research, collating of film and non-film sources, creating a colour map at the Murnau-Stiftung and the technical realisation at L`Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna took 14-15 months.
Is the new version entirely made up of German material or does it include footage from foreign versions?
Basic source material was a dupe-negative from the 1940s from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Additional material came from Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moskau Filmmuseum München, Národní filmový archiv, Prag, Cinémathèque de Toulouse, Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique, Brüssel.
How complete is the new restoration? Are there still scenes missing or are we seeing what exactly audiences would have enjoyed during its initial release?
Nobody can say how exactly the premiere print in 1921 was looking. We have no indication for missing footage.
If there is additional footage, do you feel that it improved the film overall?
For the first time we could add two before missing introductory titles, written in verse, in the framing story. So far only the first one out of three was existent. Originally, there were two more intertitles in verse within the framing story. Lotte Eisner quotes them in her book about Fritz Lang, based on the director’s recollections. Both intertitles were found again in the prints from Prague and Brussels, which had not previously been consulted. They are at the beginning of the second and sixth verses, and structure the timing of the old German episode. Over the course of the first verse evening falls, and finally night. The entire second verse, which shows the young woman’s desperate search for her fiancé and her transition into the realm of the dead, takes place at night and is also introduced with a title containing the mention of moonlight as a reference to the time. The sixth and final verse continues the background story. It is shortly before midnight, and Death gives her one last chance to win back the life of her fiancé.
What aspect of the restoration are you proudest of?
I am not proud, but happy that in the context of this project I had the chance to simulate the missing colours.
Many thanks for sharing your time!
Destiny will be available on DVD, Bluray and via streaming in North America on August 30, 2016. I’ll have an unboxing of the title posted this coming Monday. See you there!