Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The Haunted Castle (Schloss Vogelöd) (F.W. Murnau, 1921) DVD Review

F.W. Murnau's chamber mystery The Haunted Castle (1921) is his earliest surviving film...

An ominous shadow paints itself across the exterior of a bedroom window. The origin of the shadow - a scrawny, shaggy claw - sneaks into view. The window blows open. A man cowers under his sheets. The shadow of the claw now protracts across the wall, recalling the classic stairway image in Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), made a year later. The man is snatched, screaming, into the depths of the night. We never see the face of the monster. It remains an enigma; just one of the pitfalls of living in a movie castle (see also: mansion, house, motel). But contrary to its foreboding title, The Haunted Castle is not a horror film. The scene described is only a dream. The story does not involve spooks or ghouls, but rather the act of murder. Lord Vogelöd (Arnold Korff) is hosting a hunting party, but I doubt his guests were the intended prey...

A fine chamber mystery, The Haunted Castle was actually something of a disappointment for me. Murnau is one of my favorite directors, but here he relies more on titles than visuals. This is somewhat necessary, for he is adapting a lengthy and complex novel by Rudolph Stratz, which is entirely plot-driven. The development of character history is essential. So is the setup of motivation. It's not that this needs to be accomplished through dialogue though. Look at Roland West's underrated murder mystery The Bat (1926), for example, which uses lighting and performance to express its characters and their motivations. Equally, Louis Feuillade's epic serial Les Vampires (1915) employs remarkably few titles for a tale which spans 400 minutes. The titles which are used inform key details, which the scenarios then build on. Georges Franju re-adapted Judex in 1963, which Feuillade had originally filmed as a serial in 1916. The dialogue added little. It's all the more disappointing for the fact that Murnau is such a visual director. With Der letzte Mann (1924) he innovated the tracking shot, and used purely visual compositions to tell the story of an aging doorman. Often I felt like I may as well have been reading Stratz's source novel; the final script reportedly had over 80 titles.

We can't be sure what Murnau's intentions were with colour, but from what I can gather he did not officially authorize the tinting in The Haunted Castle. His single request? "Leave the dream scenes black-and-white." That demand has not been adhered to here, but I wonder if that's for the better. The greens create a creeping sense of cold, especially in the exterior shots of the castle; indeed, it becomes like an eerie mist which surrounds the grounds. Green is also employed for the aforementioned dream sequence, and the shadows feel much more defined for being placed against a colourized background. The oranges of the interiors also give off a falsely comforting warmth, and often can't be trusted. They are inviting - especially in this superb remaster - yet we know only danger can lie behind the doors they illuminate. German Expressionism is the art of light and shadow. Many scenes are shot in distanced tableaus, observing the architecture. The interiors are almost symmetrical in their design, and characters are often placed in the middle of a frame. Scenes are well lit. Shadows are used sparingly, signifying danger or nightmare when they appear. This is not your typical Murnau film, and perhaps that is why I found it so interesting.

Because for all of its flaws - tangled plotting, over-reliance on titles, ill-judged pacing - The Haunted Castle is technically fascinating, especially for fans of the Expressionist movement. Murnau completists will find much to enjoy here, but it's not an advised starting point for the director. There are hints of his greatness dotted here and there, but the best was yet to come...

The Disc/Extras
Beautifully restored, the quality of the transfer is quite literally astonishing. This is the earliest Murnau film available, and I'm surprised to see it in such good condition; a shame there wasn't a Blu-Ray made available. The sole feature on the disc is a 31-minute documentary entitled 'The Language Of The Shadows', which details Murnau's early life and films. It's quite interesting, but completists - who are the main audience for this package - may just be revising what they already know. As ever, there's a terrific booklet accompanying this release; this 32-page edition contains essays by Charles Jameux and Lotte Eisner. Informative.

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