Pretty Old Films

film 4 of 6

The Haunted Castle

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 16, 2015

This F.W. Murnau feature comes just before the pioneering, incalculably important Nosferatu. It is, or at least strikes me as being much, much the lesser film. Plot is the problem. Let’s be fair: plot is my problem, though it’s quite possible-to-likely that this assembly of mountingly implausible and preposterous developments was precisely to the taste of contemporary audiences, and comfortably within commercial conventions and expectations. After all, the also pioneering-and-incalculably-important The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released—what?—a year and a half previous to this one. In addition to all of its medium-shaking advancements, “Caligari” featured several plot stretchers, and a few performances that now come off as faintly ridiculous. Times change, and later isn’t necessarily better.

We often experience it as such though. I’ll venture to say that a further difficulty with Murnau’s film is that its implausibilities aren’t particularly entertaining. Performances are lacking. Could it be? The great director is present. He’s made a number of features already. Does he ever know where to put the camera, and the objects and actors in relation thereto! But he may not have fully figured out what to do with his actors, or how to fully match performance with setting. “Caligari” places its hyper-stylized performances in a hyper-stylized setting. They make sense together. The Haunted Castle‘s actors also behave un-naturalistically, but the visual style doesn’t follow suit. Disjunctions like that can be/have been interesting. Here, a problem.

There’s a cliché about Weimar cinema. We carelessly refer to the whole shebang as Expressionist. Yes, but no, or not always. Lotte Eisner’s pioneering 1969 (trans.) study, The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt, clearly distinguishes between classic or manifestly expressionist works and the numerous hybrids/others that were also being created. So, here. It’s not coincidental that Murnau’s film is more like Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The President and Mikael (or Gertrud!) than those usual shadowy Weimar suspects. Among other things that means that if you turn the story sound down, as it were, it’s thrillingly beautiful. What a print!