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Die Finanzen des Großherzogs|
cast: Harry Liedtke, Adolphe Engers, Alfred Abel, Mady Christians, and Herman Valentin
director: F.W. Murnau
80 minutes (PG) 1924
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Perhaps one of the most influential works of cinematic critical history is Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari To Hitler (1947). A work that
still stands up to considerable scrutiny over 50 years later, Kracauer's book presents the films of the German Weimar Republic as prophetic premonitions
of the Nazi regime to come, works filled with dark images and the same terrible moral dilemmas that the German people would soon be facing for real.
Because of the power of this vision, certain films of the period have lasted longer than others. To think of Weimar film is to have one's mind drawn
to the tragic fables of expressionism (such as Wiener's 1920 classic The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari) or the social and psychological realism of
the 'new objectivity' and Kammerspiel schools (such as Pabst's 1925 Joyless Street). However, the comedies of the period have not fared anywhere
near as well.
Indeed, sandwiched between his classic Nosferatu and his equally important
but perhaps less widely known The Last Laugh, F. W. Murnau's
Die Finanzen des Großherzogs (aka: The Finances Of The Grand Duke) is dismissed by some critics as a tasteless and trivial little
film, but I must say that I found it incredibly charming.
The film opens on the small (possibly Mediterranean) island nation of Abacco, where the Grand Duke (Harry Liedtke - who looks alarmingly like Jon
Stewart) is throwing his last pennies into the sea for the local boys to dive for, when one of his creditors arrives. It turns out that the Island
is mortgaged to the hilt and the loans are now due. A solution initially presents itself in the form of Herr Bekker (Herman Valentin), an odious
little man who wears his hat on his crotch. He offers the Duke a fortune in return for the mineral rights of one of the island's beauty spots but,
after some consideration, the Duke turns him down because he does not want his subjects turned into chisellers and labourers.
Bekker vows revenge and sets off to make friends with the local villains. Suddenly, a second solution presents itself in the shape of a letter
from a Russian princess (Mady Christians) who claims to have plenty of money and a desire to spend the rest of her life on Abacco. The Grand Duke
is overjoyed and falls asleep clutching the letter. However, when he wakes up he realises that the letter has gone... it has fallen into the hands
of his chief creditor who is also a blackmailer! Meanwhile, gentleman adventurer and eccentric Professor Collins (Alfred Abel) is convinced to burgle
the house of the blackmailer in order to help out a friend. There he learns of the letter and decides to buy up all of Abacco's loans. He then
encounters the Princess (who is desperate to get to Abacco as there has been a revolution) and he engineers a situation whereby the Princess meets
the Duke, the Duke defeats the rebels, Abacco is saved and he makes a fortune. Hurrah!
The main reason why The Finances Of The Grand Duke has not aged particularly well as a comedy is that it is not in the least bit funny. There
are silly moments, but these are more surreal and fantastical than funny per se. For example, the scene in which the Duke is throwing coins to the
local boys is intensely homoerotic in an almost classical manner. Similarly, when the Duke has to decide whether or not he should sell the mineral
rights to his island he pictures his subjects in a state of Arcadian bliss, reclining artfully whilst chomping on huge bunches of grapes. From this
pastoral idyll we are transported to the hell of industrialisation as the oppressed subjects gasp for breath amidst clouds of sulphurous gas.
Also charming is the academic adventurer who lives in a house with dozens of dogs and takes an equal joy in helping damsels in distress, smiting
evil-doers and burgling houses by coming down the chimney without a trace of soot on his face. The film seems less like an out and out comedy than
the kind of knockabout adventure story filled with thrills, spills and romance that filled cinemas the world over during the silent era. Indeed,
I was struck by how at home the academic adventurer would be in films by the like of Louis Feuillade whose Les Vampires (1915), and
Judex, would go on to inspire more recent directors such as Georges Franju
and Olivier Assayas.
Beneath all of this charming folderol, it is tempting to see deeper and more substantial themes. For example, upon being made aware of Murnau's
homosexuality it might be tempting to see some significance in the fact that we first encounter the Duke throwing his money to pretty young boys,
or the fact that the Princess is nothing but a plot device, neither desired nor loved by either the Grand Duke or the handsome adventurer. Similarly,
we might also look to the Grand Duke's principled opposition to industrialism and military coups as a kind of wish-fulfilment on behalf of a society
that would soon feel the sharp edge of both of those things. However, the truth is that The Finances Of The Grand Duke is not a particularly
profound film. It is well plotted, well directed and well acted froth and nothing more.
The DVD is packaged along with Murnau's psychological thriller Phantom, and it comes with a rather splendid and
comprehensive commentary track by David Kalat. Also included with the DVD (though unseen by your humble reviewer) is the traditional 'masters of
cinema' booklet of essays and interviews. Visually, the film has been lovingly restored. Ostensibly identical to Kino's region one release, the
region two version of the film is actually tinted a slightly darker sepia colour, emphasising more shadows and facial features.