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September 2011

Schloss Vogelöd

cast: Lotar Mehnert , Arnold Korff, Olga Tschechowa, and Paul Hartmann

director: F.W. Murnau

82 minutes (PG) 1921
Eureka DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Jim Steel

Schloss Vogelöd

First of all, you had better realise that this is mostly a psychological drama. There are hints of the supernatural, of course, but anyone expecting the full-blown horror of Nosferatu will be bitterly disappointed. It's also hardly a shining example of expressionism if one wants to approach it from that angle although, again, it does contain some aspects of the movement.

Those warnings are necessary; Murnau comes with a lot of baggage and with a title like The Haunted Castle there are bound to be expectations. However, if you arrive properly prepared then you will enjoy your visit. The English title is misleading; the original title is Schloss Vogelöd which, if my very poor German doesn't betray me, means we are in 'Castle Bird' or something along those lines. We'll call it Castle Vogelöd and leave it at that. The original German subtitle was the much more pertinent The Revelation Of A Secret.

Anyway, an unexpected guest arrives on the weekend of a shooting party. Count Oestch (Lotar Mehnert) is rumoured to have killed his brother (Paul Hartmann) to inherit the title but nothing has been proved. One look at him is enough to convince anyone, though; he has the face and mannerisms of a classic scenery-chewing villain. The owner of the castle, von Vogelshrey (Arnold Korff), is horrified; the widow (Olga Tschechowa) and her new husband (Paul Bildt) have been invited and are expected to arrive at any moment.

The rest of the guests are naturally nervous enough already, but the expectation is that Baron and Baroness Stafferstätt will leave as soon as they discover that Oestch is in the same building. Von Vogelshrey's wife (L. Kyser-Korff) happens to be Baroness Stafferstätt's sister and she realises that the only thing that will stop the couple leaving will be a desire to meet their cousin, Father Faramund (Victor Blütner) who has been living in Rome. They haven't seen him for two decades but she has his letter announcing his intention to visit. Everyone agrees to stick it out for the weekend. People come apart, the truth comes out. There are twists and fatalities.

The pacing is slow, particularly for our contemporary tastes, but it is beautifully shot. Murnau's superb camera direction and use of tints make this a feast for the eyes. Murnau uses shots of a model of the mansion whenever he wants to signal the passing of time or a change in the weather which unfortunately fails to convince and never looks like anything other than a model but that is a rare misstep. Contrast that with the nightmare where one of the guests is dragged outside by a monstrous hand; that is still a very effective piece of cinema.

The interior shots are a delight and show Murnau's early command of multiple camera angles. There is also a beautiful expressionist shot of a couple separated by beams of sunlight in a classically designed room that is a lesson in emotional characterisation, for example, and his use of flashback is flawless. The comedy kitchen adventures add nothing to the narrative but they're mercifully brief and are relatively painless examples of the sort of light relief that was sometimes inflicted on audiences.

It's an early Murnau, not a great one. It was made in a mere 16 days which adds to the sense of the hunting weekend being exactly that. In fact it was made and released so quickly that it was in cinemas before the last chapter of the serialised source novel had been published. How's that for a spoiler? One suspects that Murnau's treatment made for an improvement on Rudolph Stratz's melodramatic novel.

This 'masters of cinema' edition has been restored to as near perfection as we're ever liable to get; missing title cards have been replaced and it has been returned to its full length. The package also comes with an informative booklet which reprints a couple of essays for film magazines (I hadn't considered the influence of Man Ray, for example), and a half-hour documentary on Murnau's early years that, when it moves beyond his unremarkable youth, has some fascinating things to say about his work.



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