Any fan of German cinema, or the countless offshoots of Expressionism, will be familiar with the name F.W. Murnau. Many more recognize not the director, but the title of his most famous film— the grandfather of vampire flicks, Nosferatu. If you’ve only skimmed his body of work, you’ll likely have come into contact with the aforementioned, plus the stylistic watershed, The Last Laugh, and the historically significant, first Oscar-winning Sunrise: a Song of Two Humans. A slew of other, memorable films unquestionably come before the two released, here, in terms of rank. Murnau newcomers are advised to seek those out before considering this release. For enthusiasts, The Haunted Castle and The Finances of the Grand Duke may count as sufficiently interesting entries, but perhaps only enough to be included in a completist’s collection.
The Haunted Castle, to my surprise (and disappointment, somewhat), really isn’t a haunted house film. Psychologically troubling at best, the story contains no supernatural elements or terror, with the sole exception of a nightmare sequence somewhere at the halfway mark (that is, admittedly, pretty creepy). A threat of death, indeed, looms over the characters, inviting stirrings of the macabre, but for the purposes of mystery rather than horror, as in the books of Agatha Christie.
Set during a storm which rages for days, a group of wealthy friends gather at Lord Vogelschrey’s (Arnold Korff) Castle Vogelöd for a hunting excursion. The uninvited Count Oetsch (Lothar Mehnert) crashes the party and brings the sinister in with him. Rumor has it that he shot and killed his own brother, Peter. Exacerbating the tension, Peter’s widow, now married to a baron and Peter’s old friend, arrives at the gathering and reacts to the Count’s presence with great dismay. He’s unlikely, however, to have committed the murder (exaggeratedly eyebrow-arching and cadaverous as he is), as his ostracization from the very beginning essentially precludes him as the culprit. The devil always wears a disguise in these chamber melodramas.
Not to sound trite, but the oft overused word, “whodunnit”, comes to mind as the only suitable descriptor, with no other applicable adjective for this barebones story. Of course, to criticize the simplicity of a silent film would be more than a little misguided (although some of the silent epics contain volumes of depth), and I won’t condescend to assume that interested buyers of this release necessarily expect the unexpected. Clarity in the restoration of Murnau’s expressionist imagery serves as the prime reason for seeking out these films. In service of that, Kino Lorber succeeds with a crisp and faithfully assembled blu-ray, pulling a variety of sources together in order to present the films as close to their original form as possible. The Haunted Castle, while a minor blip for Murnau’s filmography, still possesses an array of chiaroscuro lighting and gothic sets that allude to the operatically grim imagery of Germany’s expressionist era without ever ascending to its greater heights. Hungry viewers need not apply. Curious viewers may, if they should want to.
Conversely, and a bit surprisingly, The Grand Duke’s Finances stands out in terms of enjoyment and fidelity to Murnau’s high repute. The story involves a mediterranean island drowning in debt, and the Grand Duke’s plan to appease his debtors by marrying the Russian Grand Duchess. Nefarious characters plot to intervene for their own enrichment, one of whom is played by Nosferatu’s Count Orlok himself, Max Schreck. The action jettisons from country to country as the scheming commences, and the only character with seemingly any understanding of the situation at large has no personal stake, other than his professional fee. That man would be Detective Collins, the thieving sleuth and recurring character of German author Frank Heller’s mystery novels.
Perhaps a bit tediously plotted, The Grand Duke’s Finances, nevertheless, has much more to offer in terms of notable cinematography and production value than The Haunted Castle. Oddly so, as the gothic fits Murnau’s aesthetic more than a comedy of errors. But The Grand Duke has the distinction of being shot by legendary cameraman Karl Freund, and this fact singularly explains the visual superiority. Additionally, there are simply far more plot turns and characters to keep the viewer stimulated, let alone the playful use of subjective camera. Film historian David Kalat provides a thorough and engaging commentary for the film, as well, providing the sole bonus feature on the release.
All and all, not a terrible package for a couple of nonessential films in a master’s catalogue. I don’t see a lot of shoppers springing for something like this, but libraries, collectors, and Murnau fanatics will appreciate the historical value. | Nic Champion