Title a film The Haunted Castle and you are probably going to build up a certain number of expectations in an audience’s mind, namely there’s going to be a castle and it’s going to be haunted, but this early film by German master Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is not the Gothic ghost story that you may expect. The original German title for the film is perhaps more appropriate, and it’s the one Masters of Cinema have opted to place more prominently on the DVD cover, translating to the less suggestive ‘Vogelöd Castle’.
Just a year after Schloß Vogelöd Murnau made what is almost certainly his most famous, if not best, film Nosferatu, a wonderful achievement and an iconic film from the silent era. Schloß Vogelöd is much more of a restrained and understated film than something like Nosferatu but it is nonetheless a very interesting film both as an entertaining watch and as a film of historical significance.
Based on a novel by Rudolph Stratz, Schloß Vogelöd is a story told in five acts, with literal divides, and surrounds a group of aristocrats staying in the titular castle. One of the guests is the somewhat sinister seeming Count Johann Oetsch, played with wonderful intensity by Lotar Mehnert, a man that no-one seems to trust and most believe killed his own brother. As the story plays out we are treated to various new pieces of information that lead us to question this suspicion and ultimately to a surprise conclusion that wraps up all the loose ends that unravel nicely.
The plot and staging of Schloß Vogelöd is very close to a theatre production and to modern eyes seems very much of its time but Murnau does some remarkable cinematic work here in the composition of certain scenes and the way in which he externalises the inner emotions of the characters through a variety of techniques. The contrast between the ‘present day’ scenes and a series of flashbacks in particular highlight the wealth of intricate choices made by Muranau in the way in which the scenes are constructed. The lighting and set design are particularly stunning, especially the satisfying way in which they are so well tied to the mood being created in each scene. Whilst not perhaps as visually rich as Murnau’s later films, Schloß Vogelöd is certainly an interesting film within the context of his career and despite a plot that is a little laboured in places it’s also a mostly entertaining and intriguing mystery film.
This new DVD from Masters of Cinema draws on a restoration of the film carried out in 2002 with the company, as usual, carrying out their own transfer and adding newly translated English subtitles (subtitling the inter-titles rather than replacing them with English inter-titles). The video presentation here is quite extraordinary with no obvious stability issues or signs of any serious damage.
The film has bold colour tints throughout and despite some conflicting opinions regarding who was actually responsible in 1921 for decisions regarding the tinting, the version presented here is supposedly in keeping with the original release of the film. There are certainly some instances in which the tints add something but for the most part they do not seem to compliment the film too well and I personally prefer the film without them. The booklet suggests that if you are not a fan of the tints you could turn the colour down on your television.
The image quality in general really is quite stunning for a film that is now over 90 years old and with no Blu-ray likely this is a catalogue release that deserves a place in one’s film library.
The stereo audio track supplied is a piano accompaniment to the film in keeping with the kind of musical accompaniment popular at the time. Whilst not as sublime as the Maxence Cyrin piano track included on last month’s Cœur fidèle release, this is still a very nice and entirely appropriate score.
The disc comes with the 2007 documentary ‘The Language of Shadows’ which focuses on Murnau’s films from the early twenties and goes into some detail regarding his influences. It has a relatively scholarly approach and is a very interesting watch. The DVD, of course, comes with one of Masters of Cinema’s wonderful booklets including a collection of beautiful stills and two essays, one from 1966 and the other from 1973.
The Haunted Castle is available to buy or rent on DVD now.