EARLY MURNAU

This month, Kino is releasing two early Murnau films that haven't been available on DVD before in this country — The Haunted Castle (from 1921) and The Finances Of the Grand Duke (from 1924).  Here are reviews of both films:

THE HAUNTED CASTLE

Murnau made radically diverse kinds of films in the early Twenties — still feeling his way as filmmaker.  In The Haunted Castle we see him at his most conventional — and least interesting. The film is
a cheesy melodrama based on a magazine story. It is exceptionally
well-designed and carefully photographed, in something resembling a
“studio style” — handsome, elegant, tasteful, uninspired.



On its face the tale is a kind of simple-minded Agatha Christie-type
murder mystery in which a gang of aristocrats assembles at a country
estate for a hunting weekend and dire secrets are exposed. There's a
monk among the party, whose tragically unconvincing tonsure appliance
immediately gives away the climactic gag involving assumed identity.



On the other hand, the impeccable interior sets, the graceful if
unimaginative mise-en-scène, the generally excellent acting and the
occasional flights of visual fancy give the production a weight which
the story can't begin to support. The mood and pace of the film evoke The Rules Of the Game even as the narrative evokes The Old Dark
House
. Ultimately it has the feel of an assignment — or a
demonstration piece in which Murnau proved he could deliver a classy, conventional,
“well-made” commercial product.



As usual when Murnau moves outdoors, there are beautiful images of the
countryside — always involving a dynamic spatial dimension . . . not
just pretty pictures of pretty places but images of a geography
penetrated and revealed by carefully choreographed movement though its space. There are some sweet and
lyrical and memorable images illustrating a flashback to the halcyon
days of a marriage that went very wrong.



And there is one goofy interpolation which alone feels like Murnau being
Murnau. A kitchen assistant gets hold of a bag of whipped cream and
violates it with antic lust — thrusting two fingers deep into the bag
and then thrusting the fingers deep into his mouth. Later, the boy
dreams of having another crack at the cream, this time with the monk
standing over him approvingly and sanctioning his delight as the boy
takes a slurp of cream and then slaps the head cook who scolded him for
stealing it in real life. There's a gleeful homoerotic aspect to the
gag and a tone which violates the grave hokum of the rest of the film.

THE FINANCES OF THE GRAND DUKE


In The Finances Of the Grand Duke, a much
more confident Murnau expands on the juvenile glee of the whipped cream
gag and makes a whole fluffy dessert out of it. A tiny island Duchy is
about to go bankrupt — the carefree Grand Duke has a hard time taking
the crisis seriously. He prefers throwing the last coins remaining from
his fortune into the ocean for a group of half-naked boys to dive
after.

Salvation appears in the form of a speculator who wants to buy
part of the island in order to exploit the sulfur deposits there. The
Grand Duke imagines his subjects fainting from the fumes — but really
what disturbs him, we know, is the sheer bad taste of the thing . . .
the simply awful smell. A rich Russian Grand Duchess, who doesn't
actually know the Grand Duke but has heard good things about him,
offers salvation of a different kind, if only she can escape her
brother, trying to track her down before she can offer herself in marriage to the penniless
sovereign.

Meanwhile the speculator has concocted a rebellion among the
subjects of the island, with the aid of four scoundrels, one of whom is
played by Max Schreck. Without the Nosferatu make-up and with a full
head of hair, and with a charming dumb smile, he looks quite human and
harmless — a burlesque version of Max Von Sydow.


The silliness multiplies exponentially and all comes right in the end,
of course, and the result is a real little jewel of a movie, with a
very distinctive tone — juvenile in spirit but visually elegant,
feckless but good-hearted, frothy but really funny, too. (It played
wonderfully in the crowded theater where I first saw it, with genuine happy laughter — as
opposed to “knowing” film-buff chortles — throughout.)



Here is Richard Ellman on Oscar Wilde, from his magisterial biography
of the writer: “As for his wit, its balance was more hazardously
maintained than is realized. Although it lays claim to arrogance, it
seeks to please us. Of all writers, Wilde was perhaps the best company.
Always endangered, he laughs at his plight, and on his way to the loss
of everything he jollies society for being so much harsher than he is,
so much less graceful, so much less attractive.”



One can't help seeing Murnau in the Grand Duke of this film — the
director bedeviled by the money men, the homosexual threatened by
exposure, by the loss of everything, yet so sure of himself, of his
genius, so exhilarated by life and the energy of creation that he just
can't take the grim side of things too seriously.



The sheer joy that radiates throughout this movie — the joy in
filmmaking, the joy in beautiful places (like the gorgeous Dalmation
coast locations where the film was shot), the joy of watching people
and ships and waves inhabit and transform space — is finally very
moving. We rarely get to share this aspect of genius, which is usually
engaged in weightier endeavors. This movie is weightless — like a
helium balloon — and it's marvelous to watch it rise up and disappear
into nothingness.

The films will be available separately from Kino or as part of a box set with a new edition of Faust and previously released versions of Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and Tartuffe.  I haven't seen the Kino versions of the new titles but I'm looking forward to checking them out and you should be, too.  I mean, it's Murnau.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *