An Unlikely Pairing of Lesser-Known F.W. Murnau Classics Comes to Blu-ray
DIRECTED BY F.W. MURNAU (BOTH FILMS)/1921; 1924
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: FEBRUARY 12, 2019/KINO CLASSICS
Identity confusion and orchestrated deception dominate the filmography of the great German director F.W. Murnau. The two films contained on this double feature Blu-ray from Kino Classics, 1921’s The Haunted Castle and 1924’s The Finances of the Grand Duke, are no exceptions, no exceptions whatsoever.
Murnau, the high-end, fine arts-fueled filmmaker of such seminal silents as Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, and Sunrise, isn’t slacking in the pair being reviewed here, though one would be hard pressed to rank either title among his finest work. It’s a kindness that Kino has seen fit to pair The Haunted Castle and The Finances of the Grand Duke on this two-for-the-price-of-one release. Yes, it’s exactly the kind of disc that would round out an auteur box set, positioned reliably but humbly to the far right of all the single-title special edition discs of the more high caliber inclusions. But even so, any Murnau in high definition is most welcome, nonetheless rendering this fine disc a must-have for silent film buffs.
Though The Haunted Castle (Schloß Vogelöd, fine piano music by Neil Brand) is the top billed feature on the cover of this disc, it’s The Finances of the Grand Duke (Die Finanzen des Großherzogs, fine piano music by Ekkehard Wölk) that proves more engaging, and inherently more surprising. Most surprising is that it’s essentially a comedy- and a wry, and mostly subtle one at that. Murnau, known for his drama and horror, was a more versatile filmmaker than that. This, though, is a revelation. Not only does Murnau sell gags worthy of Sturges, his penchant for wit makes one wish this could’ve been a talkie, if only to hear the sharp banter the way he did.
Saddled with a most unfortunate title that doesn’t exactly roll off of the English-speaking tongue nor even inspire curiosity in most any non-completist, The Finances of the Grand Duke nevertheless wields the same level of detail, precision, and outright perfectionism that Murnau is known for. The title, though, is nothing if not accurate- it is the failing finances of the Grand Duke of the tropical island country of Abacco that drives this story. It’s a really nice place- we’d hate to see the aristocracy lose it…
From a novel by Frank Heller, and adapted for the screen by the notorious and incomparable Thea von Harbou, Murnau’s deceptively vast production (designed, it’s said, by an uncredited Edgar G. Ulmer [Detour], who is also listed online as in an Assistant Directing capacity) begins as a somewhat stagey affair before expanding into the country proper and then out to sea. The hapless Grand Duke, just on the brink of losing everything to Abacco’s main creditor, might have just the lifeline his country needs when he’s presented with the opportunity to marry Olga, Grand Duchess of Russia. Such a union would be the end of the financial trouble, except that there’s one problem- the all-important letter of marital intent has been swiped! Whodunnit? Among the nefarious suspects is a conspirator played by infamous Nosferatu actor, Max Schreck. Refined wackiness ensues.
The only bonus feature on the disc is an audio commentary accompanying The Finances of the Grand Duke by film historian David Kalat. Kalat’s track is an extraordinary one, nailing the line between prepared academic lecture and personable company. The flow of information isn’t just solid, but truly engaging. Kalat, focusing on source material controversies, Murnau, and the ever-shifting state of the German film industry (far more interesting than it sounds) doesn’t have to run to the usual recitation of filmographies and whatnot; certainly not to the typical extent.
The Haunted Castle, predating The Finances of the Grand Duke by three years, is a far different rendering, at least per its surface. Based on a novel by Rudolf Stratz with an adapted screenplay by Carl Mayer, the powerhouse writer of some of the greatest films of 1920s Germany, The Haunted Castle is said to have been shot in a mere sixteen days. That’s impressive if not surprising, considering the staid tenor and contained manner of the film. Though the title implies otherwise, there is little in the way of the supernatural. Unpleasant dream sequences of ghoulish monster arms (and whatnot) attacking are the overt extent of it, though a palpable air of trancelike glaze dominates the performances of key cast members as well as the oversized stone interiors.
Count Oetsch (Lothar Mehnert) is persona non grata when he crashes an aristocratic gathering at the Castle Vogeloed. This is hardly surprising, not even to him, considering the common belief that three years prior, he murdered his brother, who was baroness Safferstat’s (Olga Tschechowa) first husband. Oetsch, though, is there to state his innocence. But is he really? In any case, an old wound is reopened, with the possibility of what was once thought resolved actually hasn’t been, and isn’t. Oetsch is determined, then, to find the real killer. As the story unfolds, the true haunting is revealed to something less than ghostly, and something perhaps more human than comfort can allow.
Upon first viewing, The Haunted Castle garnered little in the way of appeal or memorable takeaway. As a psychological mystery, it is in need of greater atmospheric dread- not a common need in Murnau’s cinema of closeted tensions. It lacks the hand of a cinematographer on the level of the masterful Karl Freund, who did in fact shoot The Finances of the Grand Duke.
Though lighter fare, Finances wins out in terms of enveloping mood- a key element in any film, but particularly those of Murnau. Aside from that directorial credit and the reoccurring themes that come with it, there are few connecting through-lines between the films included on this disc. There is, however, for whatever it’s worth, the unifying onscreen presence of character actor Julius Falkenstein, unmistakably prominent in both films. And both films, color tinted, restored and retitled by Murnau Stiftung, boast as fine a presentation as one could hope for.
Images used in this review are used only as visual context for the films. Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a Blu-ray review copy.