Saturday, 14 December 2013

La règle du jeu… The Haunted Castle (1921)

Looking for clues to later Murnau expressionism one might be slightly disappointed by his 1921 psychological drama The Haunted Castle (Schloss Vogelöd) but that’s not to say it’s not a well-made and entertaining film.

By this stage Murnau had made seven features over a breathtaking two years, all but one of which have been lost, the survivor being Der Gang in die Nacht (Journey Into the Night)released in early 1921. The Haunted Castle is the earliest film commercially available and it is not as expressionist as the wonderful promotional artwork suggests. A true virtuoso can play in many styles and it wasn’t compulsory to paint the scenery wild, madden the camera angles and move the walls around.

Lothar Mehnert
All this aside, The Haunted Castle is a compelling if slightly drawn out mystery which sustains a genuine unease throughout. It is presented almost as a play, split into five parts and filmed largely on rather grand interior stage sets, expertly designed by Hermann Warm. It’s a house of mystery and the mystery in question is who done it and why?

The autumn hunt on the estate of Lord von Vogelschrey (Arnold Korff) has been ruined by rain and his guests are gathered restlessly in the castle waiting for a break in the weather.

The great and the good are gathered but there has been one notable exception, Count Johan  Oetsch (Lothar Mehnert, who still intimidates the viewer across the decades…) who has not been invited as suspicions persist that he murdered his brother three years earlier. To everyone’s discomfort he has the bad form to show up anyway… this is going to be awkward.

Still, at least Germanic conventions just about permit such behaviour; not sure how well he’d fair at Downton Abbey…

The uninvited...
But as the guests gossip at this outrage, further unpleasantness is inevitable as the Count’s former sister-in-law, Baroness Safferstätt (Olga Tschechowa, Anton Chekhov’s niece don’t you know…) is due that evening along with her new husband, Baron Safferstätt (Paul Bildt).

They arrive and are just about persuaded to stay by von Vogelschrey’s wife, Centa (Lulu Kyser-Korff) who informs them that her deceased husband’s relative, Father Faramund is returning from a long sojourn in Rome: he is someone she must see and, as it transpires, not just out of familial affection…

The night draws on and Count Johan continues to act in a strange way. The next day the rain has cleared and the men troop out in search of game only to be driven back by a further deluge but the Count, saying he prefers to hunt in the storm, sets out on his own…

That evening the Father arrives from Rome and is greeted by the Baroness who is shaken by this reconnection with her husband’s family: she begins to unburden herself. But, as she asks for the Father to come and see her later that evening it seems he has completely disappeared.

Count Oetsch, still absent on his mad all-weather hunting, is naturally installed as suspect-in-chief.

Not yet Count Orlak!
As tensions run high the most anxious of the guests (Julius Falkenstein) has a vivid dream in which a shadowy clawed hand appears in his room and starts to drag him out… this is the closest we get to Count Orlok…

But the film’s concerns are more earthly and the Baroness has already begun to reveal the circumstances of her marriage to Count Peter Oetsch (Paul Hartmann) who had developed a religious mania and neglected his wife and pretty much everything else in the pursuit of purity.

Paul Hartmann and Olga Tschechowa
Now, as the guests try to maintain civility, his Count Johan accuses Baron Safferstätt of being his brother’s real murderer. This is swiftly followed by the Baronesses counter claim that Johan was still the man… and you begin to realise that all is not at all as it seems…

But, I must say no more, for fear of exposing the shocking truth at the end of this tale…

Picture paints a thousand...
Murnau directs with control and this castle is still creepy even if the horrors in store are all too human. If the film means any more than the tale it tells then perhaps it could be intended as a critique of the German landed classes, still pursuing idle pastimes as the post war economy descended into chaos… on a simpler level The Haunted Castle could foreshadow Renoir’s more direct La règle du jeu?

There are marvellous turns from Lothar Mehnert – who manages to be whoever you assume him to be with uncanny ease – as well as Olga Tschechowa who has to bear the majority of the film’s emotional extremes. The men are tame in comparison: either too timid in one case or, mostly, too restrained – all too ready to jump to the easiest conclusions.

I watched the Kino edition DVD which appears to have been slightly surpassed in quality by the Eureka Masters of Cinema release - available from MovieMail. That said, it’s still decent quality and is greatly enlivened by a score by one Neil Brandt… is that a Kino-typo?!

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