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Remind Me

Silent Sunday Nights -


Lord von Vogelschrey is hosting a group of fellow noblemen for a hunting expedition at his country estate. When Count Johann Oetsch arrives, rumors begin to spread regarding his role in his brother's death. He refuses to leave even though his brother's widow, the recently remarried Baroness Safferstatt, is visibly upset by his presence. She and her new husband agree to stay at the castle only because of the expected visit of her first husband's relative, Father Faramund, from Rome. But Father Faramund inexplicably disappears shortly after his arrival, casting further suspicion on Count Oestch. In the meantime, the Baroness is preparing to reveal what she knows about her first husband's death.

The Haunted Castle (1921) is a rare example of a surviving early film by German director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (1888-1931). Of the eight films he made before this, only Journey into the Night (1920) still exists. Another three of his four films after Nosferatu (1922) and up to The Last Laugh (1924) are also lost. For a director of Murnau's stature - his 1927 film Sunrise was selected by an international panel of critics as one of the top ten films of all time in the 2002 British Film Institute/Sight and Sound poll - the loss of such a large portion of his work is a great cultural tragedy. As with a number of silent films, the surviving materials for The Haunted Castle were lacking the original title cards. Since then, the title cards have been reconstructed according to the shooting script, making the film easier to follow.

The film was shot, remarkably, in 16 days during February and March of 1921. Murnau biographer Lotte Eisner notes that this was possible because of the careful preparations Murnau typically did before shooting. Having worked out all the technical details such as lighting and camera placement in advance, he was able to focus on creating the necessary atmosphere for the actors. Eisner quotes a journalist for the German magazine Film Kurier who visited the set during production:

"The director F. W. Murnau at work. In the studio an intimate interior set. Two women. Dense shadows form and gather near the face of one of them: presentiments. The message of fate gets through to her. Only by being there could one realize how two characters can shed all personal life and become simply artistic material shaped under the creator's hand; how that hand can bring forth life and expression and draw from the body and skill of the actor in the deepest and most delicate nuances, transforming the interpreter's own psychology into a living, changing mold..."

Credit for the film's vivid, emotionally charged atmosphere must go in part to Murnau's collaborators, who were among the most gifted figures in German cinema of the Weimar era. Scenarist Carl Mayer (1894-1944) was responsible for the groundbreaking nightmarish allegory of Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, co-written by Hans Janowitz), Leopold Jessner's melodrama Backstairs (1921) and Lupu Pick's Sylvester (1923). Mayer's other projects with Murnau include the lost film The Hunchback and the Dancer (1920), Journey into the Night, The Last Laugh, Tartuffe (1926) and Murnau's masterpiece, the American-produced Sunrise.

Set designer Hermann Warm (1889-1976) also earned international acclaim for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; other notable films by him are Lang's adventure serial Spiders (1919) and Pabst's The Loves of Jeanne Ney (1927). Besides his most famous set is undoubtedly the stark walled-in medieval city of Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). His designs on The Haunted Castle are not obviously stylized in the same way as Caligari or The Passion of Joan of Arc, but they do make effective use of staircases, decorative detailing such as wallpaper and, not least, the striking empty hallway depicted in the confession scene. Warm's only other collaboration with Murnau was the film Phantom (1922).

Fritz Arno Wagner (1894-1958) enlivens The Haunted Castle with his atmospheric cinematography, ranging from the stark landscapes surrounding the chateau, with trees photographed in silhouette, to the chiaroscuro lighting of Father Faramund's arrival at the castle gate and the delicate sunlight shining upon the Baroness at the beginning of the flashback sequence. Wagner's other major films include: Nosferatu; Fritz Lang's Destiny (1921), Spies (1928), M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933); and G. W. Pabst's The Love of Jeanne Ney; Kameradschaft (1931) and The Threepenny Opera (1931). He continued working prolifically in Germany through the Nazi era, producing little of note until Berhard Wicki's classic of the immediate postwar era, The Bridge (1949).

The same story was remade in a 1936 version directed by a Max Obal and produced at UFA. The reviewer in Variety described it as a "German whodunit with nothing to recommend it to the English-speaking market or to Hollywood." Among other things, the reviewer wrote that the film was "pervaded by an air of dreariness because of the lack of comedy pace-changes." Evidently, Mayer and Murnau had anticipated this problem in their own film, since it features comic relief in the form of "the frightened gentlemen" and the kitchen-boy who wants nothing more than to eat cream to his heart's content. The balance of dark with light elements is a key feature of the Carl Mayer-F. W. Murnau collaborations, seen most clearly in the comic epilogue of The Last Laugh and the amusement park sequence in Sunrise; indeed, this balance is key to understanding Murnau's art as a whole.

Director: F. W. Murnau
Screenplay: Carl Mayer, based on the novel by Rudolf Stratz
Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner and Laszlo Schaffer
Set Design: Hermann Warm
Principal Cast: Arnold Korff (Lord von Vogelschrey), Lulu Kyser-Korff (Centa von Vogelschrey), Lothar Mehnert (Count Johann Oetsch), Olga Tschechowa (Baroness Safferstatt), Paul Bildt (Baron Safferstatt), Paul Hartmann (Count Peter Paul Oestsch, the first husband of the Baroness), Hermann Vallentin (retired judge), Julius Falkenstein (the frightened gentleman), Georg Zawatzky (the kitchen-boy).

By James Steffin