Sad, isn't it, to see John Ford and Frank Borzage honored so highly in 2007 and 2008 on home video with a lavish amount of DVDs in American box sets, when their lord and master, German auteur Freidreich Wilhelm Murnau languishes with a whopping two films in that lovely Murnau and Borzage at Fox collection. But daily, weekly, monthly, Murnau grows, ever larger, ever more influential. Assuaging that gap under "M" on your DVD shelf that previously held only single editions of the master's films comes Kino's collection dedicated to the director. It includes previously released and restored versions of Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1925), the director's massively budgeted carte blanche adaptation of Faust (1926), but perhaps most excitingly the previously undistributed The Haunted Castle (1921) and The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924).
These two rarities are a welcome rejoinder to the goliath-like reputation of Murnau's best known films, also included in this set and supplemented by Fox's release of Sunrise. Yes, this great artist of cinema made studio pictures like the rest of the era's best filmmakers. He too was shackled to budgets and genres, and let his art flourish amidst such common constraints.
Of the entire set, it is The Haunted Castle that seems the least noteworthy and the most modest, and is thereby the most important, as it shows Murnau working on the most banal material. Despite an adaptation from Carl Mayer (the greatest Weimar screenwriter?), the film is a one act stage play dragged into feature length: a rain storm isolates a country mansion where the unsolved murder from the past is dragged, guilty and anguished, out of the closet, forcing accusations, disguises, curses, and finally, retribution. Yet this is not solemn Murnau (for a director known for his tender artistry, it is still surprising to find out his movies are not all solemn); if anything, the Murnau of The Haunted Castle is a more versatile director, juggling tones ranging from joyful to farcical, terrorizing and severe to resplendent.
The jostling tone is accompanied by cinematic dialectics: Murnau uses space—the receding depth of the set, the stairways leading up and down, the length of rooms and hallways—to suggest the mystery and curiosity of the plot:
..and uses images of nature—often seen behind characters through windows, stormy tree branches or glittering sunlight—as a subtle form of expressionism, mise-en-scène as emotional expression:
So while the drama seems an arbitrary exercise in sub-Agatha Christie (and pre-Renoir) mansion mystery, Murnau's beautiful, sophisticated use of setting ends up expressing much more of both drama and psychology than the film's story does on its simple surface.
The same cannot be said for The Finances of the Grand Duke, which almost entirely lacks a sense of emotional and psychological vibrancy, but scripted by Thea von Harbou (Fritz Lang's collaborator in Germany) the film has the globe-trotting thrill of an espionage thriller—another surprise from Murnau. Psychological complexity and spatial expressivity are set aside for post-serial, pre-Bond location hopping; where it was an event every time sunlight blessed the frame of The Haunted Castle's grave decor with emotional depth, Murnau bathes The Finances of the Grand Duke in its Italian, Croatian, and Yugoslavian shooting locations, representing the benign, lackadaisical lifestyle of the tiny, bankrupt Mediterranean island in which the story is set.
That the plot revolves around the kind of intrigue of 1860s hot-button literature—financial speculators and money-lenders move the intrigue along, sparking revolution and drawing wanton playboys into the drama—somehow still speaks for the plot's modernity, a couple years before Lang/Harbou imagined a bank as the many-armed octopus controlling the world in Spies. But the principle pleasure—aside, again, from Murnau jumping style and tone from the film's serial-like chapter to chapter structure, one moment slyly whimsical, another debonair, in another, documentarian—is Karl Freund's photography in German cities of the 1920s, of the Mediterranean mansions, of boats floating out of and into port, of cars traveling the city streets, a city bridge at dusk, natural sunlight brightening a lavish room from a real sun through a real window. Murnau may get deeper in his next movies, but rarely was he so generous and carefree—fun even.