F.W. Murnau is of course one of the most important names in the history of the development of cinema. Often working with other key players in the German film industry during the Weimar years, such as screenwriter Carl Meyer and producer Erich Pommer, Murnau laid the foundations in little more than a decade for the film grammar we all now take for granted, based on his then innovative use of the mobile camera, with its fast-developing armoury of tilts and pans and point-of-view shots, not to mention his help in forging the terms of the Expressionistic lighting style which became so essential to the emergence of the horror film. “Nosferatu” (1922) is still rightly seen as his most well-known and iconic film in that regard, while “The last Laugh” (1924) and “Faust” (1926) went on to instantiate pure German Expressionism in two of its most sophisticated and fully mature incarnations. Murnau only worked in cinema for a short time, but he was immensely prolific and had already directed nine films before “Nosferatu” premiered, most of which are now considered lost. "Schloss Vogelöd" (known as “The Haunted Castle: The Revelation of a Secret” in English) is the earliest surviving of the director’s works from that period, and seems to promise an interesting proto-expressionistic sketch of the ground-breaking shadow land of nightmares and dreams conjured up only a year later in “Nosferatu” and “Phantom” (1922). At a sprightly 82 minutes and broken up into five short acts, this mystery story, based on a German novel of the period by Rudolf Stratz, shows a skilled filmmaker still working very much within the set parameters of the day, but occasionally coming up with amazing shots or essaying hesitant, early versions of striking ideas that would later find their full flowering and be transformed in other, more innovative films from later in his career. Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema series presents a beautifully restored new transfer of “Schloss Vogelöd” which constitutes the most vivid and gorgeous looking DVD version yet, offering amazing clarity for such an early example of silent cinema. The print has been derived from the original German negative and a Portuguese nitrate print. Some missing German intertitle cards have been replaced using the original shooting script, and are provided with subtitle translation for this UK edition.
The curtain opens upon the members of a rained-off hunting party on a dark and windy afternoon, convened in the spacious drawing room at castle Vogelöd where the gentlemen pass the time relaxing by playing cards while wreathed in cigar smoke, as they wait for the stormy weather to turn. Murnau uses a miniature model castle nestled in the midst of a picturesque forest landscape for the exterior establishing shots of the building, indicating the time of day and the changing weather conditions with studio lighting effects. Inside the castle we are introduced to a heavily tweed-clad assembly of provincial bourgeois personages who are the guests of Lord Vogelöd (Arnold Korff) for the week. The smug boys’ club atmosphere is disrupted by the arrival of Count Johann Oetsch (Lotar Mehnert), whom the others seem surprised and embarrassed to see being ushered into the drawing room by the Lord’s starchy butler (Robert Leffler). Lord Vogelöd takes the new arrival aside while the other gentlemen gossip about his past. A retired provincial judge (Hermann Vallentin) among the holidaying hunting party lets it be known that Count Oetsch is believed to have murdered his own brother in a dispute over the family inheritance. Even though there is no direct evidence linking him to the crime, the Count has in the meantime become a social pariah among the stuffy Weimar elite, and wasn’t actually even invited to take part in the hunting holiday at all! Nevertheless, he refuses to leave, even though an embarrassed Lord Vogelöd gingerly informs him that the widow of his murdered brother (Olga Tschechowa) is about to arrive, along with her new husband, the Baron Safferstätt (Paul Bildt).
The film takes on the now traditional guise of the country house drawing-room mystery then; one in which a number of people of suspicious character congregate in the splendour of stately surroundings to play out the moves of a mystery which invariably has its roots in the hidden crimes of the past. We know from the beginning that there must be much more to the death of Oetsch’s brother than the chattering fraternity in the drawing room, with their slicked-down hair and smug repose, are likely to be aware of and we are aware also that the Count’s lugubrious presence must spring from some oblique motive, yet to be revealed. The viewer, armed with the foreknowledge that comes from having been schooled in the subsequent developments of the horror genre, will also likely note Count Oetsch’s faint and coincidental similarity to Bela Lugosi’s screen version of Count Dracula in Todd Browning’s adaptation of Stoker’s novel, which drew heavily on the static drawing-room play structure of the Hamilton Deane stage version. There the suave foreigner Lugosi invaded polite English society to wreak havoc on its social norms and pollute its lineage, much as Count Oetsch interrupts the smooth workings of the provincial Weimar aristocracy by bringing the threat of scandal and intrigue to castle Vogelöd. In this case, though, rather than handsome and unctuously inviting as was Lugosi, the invader is furrow-browed, dark eyed and malevolent-looking, and filled with intimations of his being some sort of sinister Alistair Crowley figure in heavy tweed, who has travelled widely in the East, become familiar with the exotic ways of that region’s religious practices, and is immediately assumed to possess supernatural powers of precognition by his clubby former pals, who think about India only in terms of exotic adventure and the ability of its denizens to exercise prophetic powers. This hint at a supernatural component in the story (the count does indeed make certain ominous predictions), which is also present in the misleading English title, is merely a superficial adjunct to what is in reality a fairly straightforward mystery story which feels so utterly familiar in form all these years later that a modern audience will no doubt solve its conundrums upon instant acquaintance.
Lady Vogelöd (Lulu Kyser-Korff) meanwhile, is beside herself at the potential for embarrassment such a fraught situation now threatens to unleash in the family fortress. The spectral Baroness Safferstätt soon enough arrives by coach, in a Gothic tinged precursor to the kind of scenes Murnau would often undertake in later films by utilising a powerful wind machine and artificial rain to create the stormy conditions which accentuate the brooding drama inherent in the appearance of this pale, mediumistic figure in black. Her taciturn new husband, the Baron, is equally gaunt and silent, and the couple are hardly bouncing with the joy of their recent marriage. Furthermore, the imminent arrival of Father Faramund (Victor Blütner), a relative of the dead brother who is recently back after a pilgrimage to Rome, is also now expected after the late delivery of a letter addressed to the Baroness. She is eager to speak to him on an urgent matter connected with her former husband and so decides to stay on at the castle until he shows up, despite the lurking presence of his brother and suspected murderer. The Father turns out to be an odd, monkish, Rasputin-like fellow in heavy rimmed spectacles and a long grey beard who appears to exert a mesmeric hold upon the Baroness, but then mysteriously disappears from his room soon after arriving. It isn’t long before the other guests begin to suspect Count Oetsch may have committed yet another murder.
This slight and ultimately inconsequential mystery story possesses little of the necessary suspense or intrigue that its (English) title promises, and is little more in the end than crude melodrama of the most basic kind, which can only vaguely hint at the themes of religious guilt, class snobbery and romantic ennui from which it is rather flimsily constructed. Yet Murnau is able to leave his imprint on it nonetheless. The most famous scene comes from a short dream sequence midway through the film, in which one of the more anxiously inclined guests making up the prospective hunting party experiences a nightmare in which he is menaced in his bed by a claw-like hand which grasps at him from through the bay windows of his room. The similarity to a famous scene in “Nosferatu” of course hardly needs commenting on, but what is perhaps more interesting is that here the sequence actually plays more as surreal comedy than horror (in which the elongated, rat-like fingers seen emerging from the clawed hand turn out to be attached to an arm that’s at least five foot long) and is followed by an even more comically motivated slapstick scene in which a much-abused scullion lad dreams of exacting revenge on the ogre of a cook who regularly beats him in the castle kitchens. A perhaps more intriguing sequence is the flashback to the Baroness’s former marriage to Count Peter Oetsch which, shot in baroque surroundings of suffused light, hints at the interesting psychological inclinations veiled behind the Baroness’s determination to counter her husband’s bookish, saint-like demeanour by developing an equal and opposite fascination with the subject of evil. This is her attempt to assuage the boredom of life married to a dreamy scholar who, despite his theoretical love for his pretty wife, in fact would prefer to spend his days engaged with idle philosophical study in the heavily draped library of his rambling home, than actually be around or engage with her. The other characters are very broadly drawn caricatures that get little time to develop much beyond the brush stroke templates which the performers are given to suggest in the theatrical gestures of their visual representations. Decades of drawing room mysteries and Agatha Christie-influenced plots leave this adaptation’s already thin plotting looking rather more meagre than one would hope, and we’re left only with the suggestive performances of Arnold Korff and Olga Tschechowa to aid in the general mise-en-scène of shadowy foreboding which, through set design and occasionally breath-taking cinematography, Murnau still delivers in spades, despite the limiting nature of the setting and the overall staleness of the story material.
This DVD release from the Master of Cinema series (which really requires your support now, after Eureka!, along with many other independent labels, lost all their stock during a fire which engulfed a Sony distribution centre and razed it to the ground amid the recent London riots) offers a truly stunning transfer with unbelievable clarity and extremely vivid hues evident in the colour tinting that make it look especially vital. The disc includes the original German language intertitles with newly translated English language subtitles, and a 31 minute documentary produced by Luciana Berriatua called “The Language of the Shadows: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and his Films” – a German language film which looks at the early career of the director and includes interviews with many surviving relatives of people who were involved in the German film industry of the period. The film, of course, includes English subtitles. Finally, as is ever the case with Eureka! and their Master of Cinema series, a beautifully produced booklet is included which features two (rather verbose) archive essay reviews, numerous film stills and some evocative poster art from the time of the film’s release.
This may not be a classic F.W. Murnau film in terms of the standing it has attained alongside the key films of his career, but it represents an important developmental stage in the evolution towards those later works, and has been given a suitably strong rendering by the ever reliable Eureka Entertainment.