Blu-ray Review: The Haunted Castle (1921) / The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924) | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, October 20th, 2019  

The Haunted Castle (1921) / The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924)

Studio: Kino Classics

Mar 22, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau has long been considered one of the pioneers of German Expressionism and Kammerspielfilm, having directed the iconic Nosferatu in 1922 and The Last Laugh in 1924. His stunning career would take him from Germany to Hollywood, where he would create one of the greatest silent films ever produced, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), and would work on his final film Tabu with genre trailblazer Robert J. Flaherty in 1931. Upon his premature death via an automobile accident the week of Tabu’s premiere, Murnau left a lasting legacy of visual and structural experimentation, and deeply-resonant humanism that has seldom been echoed in any other visual artist. However, before his steep ascent into the filmmaking pantheon, Murnau’s path into motion pictures was a nuanced journey.

While studying philology, art history, and literature, he was invited to renowned theater and film director Max Reinhardt’s acting school - it is here he truly began to understand what went into a theatrical (and eventually a cinematic) production. With the outbreak of World War I, Murnau served on the eastern German front before joining the Imperial German Flying Corps, and when he was captured and interned as a prisoner of war in Switzerland, he spent the remaining years of the war involved with the camp’s theater group. Upon his release, Murnau established a film company with rising actor Conrad Veidt (the soon-to-be international star of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and cranked out nine feature films in his first three years of production alone. While most of Murnau’s filmography has survived the near-century since they were shot, his earlier works are a bit of a blank spot. His first six features, withstanding the bits and pieces that still remain, have been completely lost, with his earliest surviving works beginning with his two remaining 1921 efforts: Journey into the Night and The Haunted Castle.

A company of men meet for a multiday hunt at Castle Vogelöd, though their plans are undone by a sizable batch of gale and rain, so they keep their party indoors. When Count Johann Oetsch (Lothar Mehnert) appears, uninvited, much to the chagrin of Baroness Safferstätt (Olga Tschechowa), who had been married to Oetsch’s late brother Peter (Paul Hartmann), accusations that he had killed his brother swirl around the castle. Though Safferstätt makes plans to immediately depart, reports of Father Faramund (Victor Blütner), a friend of her late husband, convinces her to stay and take confession. While the title is thoroughly misleading (no traditional hauntings occur), The Haunted Castle one of the best examples of a filmmaker still attempting to understand what interests them the most.

The technique is clearly here, the film is chock-full of consistent long takes, concise editing, and rhythmic plot progressions - everything to make a compelling visual story is here. However, what is severely lacking is a tangible atmosphere and consistent performances - there are several standout moments by the cast, but overall the emotional experience is noticeably choppy. László Schäffer and Fritz Arno Wagner’s cinematography is precise and methodical, hitting every mark with sublime accuracy, and Murnau’s use of shadows and light is nothing short of superb. However, such technical prowess can do little to provide the immersiveness that a murder-mystery like this requires, and the story is pretty standard even for the era. While its final twists are fascinating to watch unravel, the film is a lukewarm chamber-drama with few characters interesting enough to keep an audience effectively interested.

Murnau’s succeeding filmography over the next couple years would be eclectic and highly experimental, and would also consist of a fruitful collaboration with famed screenwriter Thea von Harbou. Beginning in 1922 with the surreally-charged romantic film Phantom, it continued with the (now) lost film The Expulsion in 1923, and concluding with The Finances of the Grand Duke in 1924 - the only outright comedy of Murnau’s entire career. The film focused on the debt-stricken Grand Duke Don Roman (Harry Liedtke), heir to the small Mediterranean island Abacco. While the loan shark Marcowitz (Guido Herzfeld), the owner of Abacco’s debt, threatens to take the island as repayment, the Russian Grand Duchess Olga (Mady Christians) is determined to marry Roman against the wishes of her Crown Prince brother (Robert Scholtz). Meanwhile a crooked businessman and his trio of cartoonish goons organise a revolution to overthrow the government so they can possess rights to a large deposit of sulphur on the island’s coast. By wacky antics Philipp Collins (Alfred Abel), a sly and snarky thief, discovers the numerous shenanigans afoot and invests in Abacco’s turbulence as a means to get extremely rich.

Though I wouldn’t go as far as to say that The Finances of the Grand Duke is overtly funny, in context of its original release, I can appreciate how this film serves as a highly emblematic commentary on the state of politics in 1920s Germany (and that it also features actor Max Schreck, who famously portrayed Count Orlok in Nosferatu). As is echoed throughout many of his contemporaries’ expressionist films, Murnau was disillusioned by the limited efficacy of the Weimar Republic, its weak attempts at controlling an increasingly desperate and impoverished population, and how a return to a patriarchal leadership (along the lines of the Kaiser) would probably serve the nation best. This sentiment ballooning out of control and resulting in the rise and codification of Nazisim in Germany into the early 1930s greatly contributed to Murnau’s emigration to Hollywood in 1926. Karl Freund and Franz Planer’s cinematography is (at times) flamboyant and intricate, though it stays pretty close to convention for the majority of the film - the scale of the production, and its numerous vivid locales make the film worth the view. It is wholly different from any other Muranu experience, the characters overblown to near caricatures, yet it is just as hallmarked by the stylistic flourishes we’ve all come to expect from his work.

Kino Lorber has released The Haunted Castle and The Finances of the Grand Duke on a single-disc Blu-ray, sporting the 2002 and 1994 restorations, respectfully, as part of their Kino Classics Collection. Though equipped with some restored intertitles and fresh digital soundtracks of each film’s score, there are no other supplemental features in the release. While the pair of films do shed some light on the evolution of Murnau’s style and interests at different moments of his career, they ultimately make a lean release when not buttressed by the history which makes their productions interesting subjects.



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