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The Forgotten: The Unheimlich Maneuver

Graf Oetsch, suspected of his brother's murder, arrives uninvited at a hunting party. Why is he here?

Olga Tschechowa points the finger.

It's a listless country house gathering, broiling with intrigue under the surface: Bertie Wooster might appear, except we're in Germany. The hunt is rained off: nobody has anything to do except read the paper or gossip. And then Graf Oetsch arrives, suspected of murder, and they really have something to gossip about...

I first saw F.W. Murnau's Schloß Vogeloed (1921), under the misleading title The Haunted Castle, on a grey-market VHS bought on eBay. Grey was the word: the washed-out images were devoid of clarity, life and atmosphere, and the only thing that struck me asides from the pervasive theatricality was a double dream sequence which crashed into the plot for no real reason.

The first dream is scary, although the dreamer is the film's comedy relief character, "the anxious gentleman" played by Julius Falkenstein. As he slumbers, the window blows open and the diaphanous curtains blow in the gale... a vast hand reaches in, somehow traversing the distance from bed to window via dream-bad-continuity, and plucks the anxious gentleman from his kip...

This was exciting. The hand, clad in a great coat sleeve and sprouting long, sinuous fingers and long, chitinous nails, clearly belonged to Nosferatu, not yet manifested upon the screen (his debut would come the following year) but impatient to be born.

This fantasy is partially dispelled by Masters of Cinema's pristine new DVD of the Murnau-Stiftung restoration, for the hand is gigantic and bristling with hair, differentiating it from Graf Orlok's nasty mitt, though it's clearly a foreshadowing: the shadow of an onrushing shadow.

In all other respects, the DVD is of course a vast improvement, and that theatricality looks much more interesting and successful. The second dream, in which a kitchen skivvy imagines being spoon-fed cream by a kindly priest, while slapping his oppressor, the chef, is all the more bizarre and Buñuelian when accoutred with the crisp detail of digital presentation.

Elsewhere, Murnau experiments: in Tartuffe he would deploy different styles for the framing story and the film-within-a-film: here, he jettisons the formal, symmetrical, even Kubrickian framing during a flashback in which many see the influence of the Swedish school.

Murnau changes styles not just between films, but sometimes between sequences.

This material forges clear links between outside and inside, shooting through doorways and windows and decorating the frame with impressionistic shafts of light. The bulk of the film, by contrast, takes place in hunting lodge whose exterior is a large miniature, whose grounds are sets built by Hermann "Caligari" Warm, and whose interiors, while solid enough, are often presented in proscenium arch establishing shots. 

Though his film is based on a book, Murnau is dragging theatrical conventions in, but he doesn't neglect cinema either. Carl Mayer's script delivers the crucial backstory (the movie's kind of a whodunnit, but the crucial crime occurred some time before the action) through energetically shuffled parallel scenes. Lotte Eisner complained that the cast were uncommonly ugly for a Murnau film, but that can be a source of pleasure too: Hermann Vallentin resembles a Toby jug, or the criminologist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and indeed spends much of his time pontificating gloomily from a leather armchair. Lothar Mehnert (top) is even more grotesque, which helps him act as focus for our suspicions: his vast granite skull is practically equipped with cornices. And Falkenstein, as comedy relief, is truly horrible, a soft-boiled skull, the first in a line of Murnau characters inhabiting the blasted no-man's-land between humor and terror (like everybody in Nosferatu).

Plus there's the use of space, which can take a frame that seems theatricaland make of it pure cinema.

One wouldn't recommend  Schloß Vogeloed to a Murnau newbie, but for anyone who thinks they've seen it all, the restoration offers fresh pleasures and insights into that strange, unique talent.

***

 The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay. ■

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