Early Murnau: Five Films 1921 – 1925

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Alfred Abel is Philip Collins in The Grand Duke’s Finances

Eureka Entertainment have just released five silent masterpieces by the director of Nosferatu, Friedrich Wilhem Murnau on Blu-ray as `part of their Master of Cinema series. And fascinating watching they make too, ranging from tragic melodrama to mysterious goings on at a creepy castle.

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Baroness Safferstatt goths it up

In Schloss Vogelod (AKA The Haunted Castle 1921) a hunting party at mansion is interrupted by a uninvited guest. Count Hohann Oetsch (Lothar Mehnert) is the brother-in-law of Baroness Safferstatt (Olga Tschechowa) and pay attention Flowers, widely suspected of murdering his brother who was also her former husband. So the seeds of a difficult weekend are sewn only to be compounded by mysterious monk. It’s not a bad little film with some atmospheric camera work from Fritz Arno Wagner and Laszlo Schaffer and a particularly creepy dream sequence that reveals a premonition of what’s to come in Nosferatu.

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Doomed poet Lorenz just can’t find a good woman when one’s right under his nose, it wasn’t this one though

Phantom (1922) tells the story of poet Lorenz Lubota (Alfred Abel) who falls for a grasping woman, loses his job and then plots with his miserly aunt’s toyboy to rob the old biddy to finance his new lifestyle. what’s interesting about this film is the use of what Murnau called the unchained camera where the camera operator would follow characters through some of the set pieces, a kind of primitive steady cam, only much heavier with 1920s technology. There’s also some brilliant set design making  great use of false perspective and a really clever scene where the buildings on the street appear to close in on Lorenz as his world appears to collapse around him.

Phantom star Abel also turns up in The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924) as adventurer Phillip Collins who comes to the rescue of the Grand Duke of Abacco when he is deposed by an evil industrialist keen to turn the Mediterranean island into a sulphur mine. What’s interesting here for horror fans is an appearance by the star of Nosferatu, Max Schreck as one of the plotters and camera work by Karl Fruend who would later direct Karloff in The Mummy (1932) and Peter Lorre in Mad Love (1935) before going on to design the flat lighting system that became standard for shooting sitcoms with I Love Lucy in 1951.

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Emil Jannings as the nameless doorkeeper in The Last Laugh

Freund was also behind the camera for the final two films in the set Tartuffe (1925) and The Last Laugh (1924). Tartuffe is basically Moliere’s story of a conman who inveigled his way into a wealthy household, framed within a modern setting. Another Point of interest for horror fans was that Werner Krauss, who played Caligari in Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), was cast as the nobleman Orgon.

The Last Laugh stars double Academy Award winner Emil Jannings as the hotel doorkeeper who is demoted to toilet attendant when the hotel manager decides he is too old to do his duty at the front door. Partly a satire on the German military, the doorkeeper’s fate breaks his spirit when his neighbours find out about his new role in life. Within the setting of the Hotel Atlantic  Fruend gets the opportunity to experiment with Murnau’s unchained camera technique shooting from a descending lift and following people around the set.

Apparently Murnau encouraged Fruend to try new ideas like the rotating dolly used to recreate the effects of several glasses of wine during the doorkeeper’s niece’s wedding reception. The art direction, set and lighting design is also quite revolutionary with Murnau taking his use of false perspective to an extreme as distance is created with model trains,  toy cars driven by children and cutouts drawn through the background on tracks. All built in the studio the tenements in the poor part of the city  are every bit as animated as the apartment block constructed for Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Oh yes and for good effect Murnau gets to reprise the streets folding in on the humiliated protagonist trick he used in Phantom.

With cinematography techniques so far advanced beyond anything America had to offer at the time, combined with the increasingly inhospitable environment in Germany (Murnau was gay and Fruend Jewish) it’s no surprise that Hollywood beckoned. while Fruend went on to enjoy a long successful career as both a cinematographer and director Murnau was tragically killed in 1931 when his 14-year-old Filipino servant crashed the Rolls Royce he was driving into an electricity  pole near Santa Monica. He was 42 years old.

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So not although not strictly speaking horror The Early Murnau: Five Films 1921-1925 is definitely worth a look if you are interested in the history of the genre and filmmaking in general.

All five films are new high-definition transfers taken from the best archival sources available and released on Blu-ray for the first time. The Early Murnau: Five Films 1921-1925 is out now in the UK on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment price £39.99.

Blu-ray extras:

The Language of Shadows documentary by Luciano Berriatua

Tartuffe: the Lost Film documentary by Luciano Berriatua

The Making of The Last Laugh documentary by Luciano Berriatua

What Will You Be Tomorrow video essay by filmmaker and critic David Cairns

Audio commentary on The Finances of the Grand Duke by David Kalat

100 page illustrated book featuring writing by Charles Jameux, Lotte H Eisner, Janet Bergstrom and Tony Ryans

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