The Haunted Castle

The Haunted Castle was made in 1921 by the German director F. W. Murnau. Murnau is best known today as the director of Nosferatu (1922), the first and in many respects best film version of Dracula; from its title alone, the unsuspecting viewer might imagine The Haunted Castle to be an equally macabre journey into the supernatural.

The viewer would be wrong.

Murnau's earlier film is actually a starchy, obvious mystery, a sort of third-rate German knockoff of Agatha Christhie. I have no doubt that the English title was added at a much later date, after Nosferatu, to take advantage of that film's reputation.

The original title of the film, Schloß Vogelöd, is the name of the castle of the mild-mannered Count von Vogelschrey. The Count has invited a handful of his aristocratic friends for a hunting party on the grounds of the estate. Joining him are (among others) a retired Judge; an early example of Odious Comic Relief identified only as "The Nervous Guy"; and, later on the evening of the first day, the sickly-looking Baron Safferstätt and his wife. Unfortunately for the hunters, a torrential rainstorm has sprung up, stranding them all indoors for cards and cigars.

The lighthearted mood of the party is broken by the arrival of the sinister Count Oetsch. Oetsch, who bears a startling resemblance to Martin Landau, is persona non grata for two reasons: first, he was accused of murdering his own brother three years before; and second, his brother's widow, now the Baroness Safferstätt, will be arriving at the castle shortly. Vogelschrey had not invited Oetsch, naturally; yet... here he is, and when Vogelschrey tries to convince him to leave, he merely shrugs and puffs intently on his cigarette.

At last the Baron and his wife arrive. Oetsch greets them with stiff dignity, but they ignore him. A look of enormous rage passes over Oetsch's stern face, but otherwise he remains stock-still in the foreground.

The Baroness is as stern and pale as a block of marble. She looks like a woman who has endured a lifetime's anguish in the three years since her first husband's death. Olga Tschekowa's playing of the role is less a performance than an attitude. She languishes a lot, leaning away at strange angles with her eyes rolled back... Though this style of acting seems odd to us today (and sometimes even laughable), there are moments when it seems very effective even to a contemporary viewer. One such moment is a confrontation between the Baron and his wife: at the beginning of the scene, it seems unbelieveable that two people could overact so furiously while scarcely moving at all. By the end of the scene, as the Baron sinks to his knees in despair and the Baroness makes no move to comfort him, the artificiality of their gestures makes a clear emotional statement. Still better is a flashback to the early days of the Baroness's first marriage: here, Tschekowa is much more natural and easygoing, which points up the stilted way in which the Baroness now carries herself.

Confronted with the baleful presence of Count Oetsch, the Safferstäts inform Count Vogelschrey and his wife that they will leave immediately. Vogelschrey, as usual, goes off dithering, while his wife goes into hysterics. Suddenly, Countess Vogelschrey pulls herself together: she has remembered a good reason for the Baroness to stay, Oetsch or no Oetsch. It seems another, more benign in-law of hers is coming to the castle shortly: her late husband's uncle, Father Faramund from Rome. On hearing that Father Faramund is coming, the Baroness withdraws still further into herself. It's impossible to tell what's going through her head, but clearly, she's deeply affected by the news.

In the meantime, the Nervous Guy has foolishly attempted to draw Count Oetsch into pleasant conversation. Since the Count claims he can foretell the future, the Nervous Guy asks him if they'll be doing any shooting, in spite of the rain. The Count looks up ominously: "There will be one shot," he says; "perhaps two." The Nervous Guy clams up.

The next morning dawns clear. The Nervous Guy asks Oetsch if he is joining their party. Oetsch replies that he only hunts during storms and rain. This again shuts up the Nervous Guy, who runs off to join the hunt. No sooner does the hunt get underway, though, when another torrential storm blows in; the sodden hunters return without having fired a shot. Shortly, though, someone notices Oetsch -- true to his word -- going out to hunt in the rain. The Judge remarks that he's probably unable to face his arriving relative, the priest.

Later in the evening, Father Faramund arrives. The Baroness immediately begs him to come to see her. The priest obliges, and the girl begins telling him about her marriage to her first, lamented husband. At first, she says, everything was wonderful -- here we have the flashback, wherein we see the Baroness arranging flowers in a vase (this behaviour seems to be German expressionist shorthand for Happiness in Love). But, she adds, one day her husband went on a journey, and when he came back, he was a changed man. He became obsessed with the idea of living a pure life, uncorrupted by worldly pleasures. The deeper he went into his obsession (and the more of a crashing bore he became), the stronger became her reaction to it, to the point where she wanted to immerse herself in evil...

At this point she breaks off, unable to continue. She asks the priest to wait until the next evening for the rest of her story... her confession. As he is escorted to his chamber, the priest asks the servant to postpone his greeting of Count von Vogelschrey until tomorrow. In the night, though, the Baroness reconsiders and sends someone to fetch the priest at once. No one is able to rouse Father Faramund. Vogelschrey at last goes for the key to Faramund's room, and fearing the worst, the other guests rush in.

But Father Faramund has disappeared without trace from his locked room...

I have a feeling, based on the pieces of the plot I've outlined here, that you'll have guessed what happened to Father Faramund. If you could see Faramund himself, you'd probably figure out most of the rest of the picture, including the identity of the younger Oetsch's killer. The especially astute will have been able to figure it all out from a single line of dialog (which I've hinted at in passing, by the way).

So it isn't really for the mystery that today's viewer will want to watch The Haunted Castle. Probably the best reason to see it is for its historical importance, as an example of an interesting director's early work. Unfortunately, it's no forgotten masterpiece. Much of The Haunted Castle is slow and static, with practically every scene punctuated by an iris-out. Murnau did much more inventive things in Nosferatu and later movies such as The Last Laugh (which, with its innovative use of the camera, revolutionized the vocabulary of film).

There's much about the movie that could have been great. We're given at least one memorably sick character in the person of Baroness Safferstät, a woman whose thwarted desire for her own husband turns her into a sociopath. Even today, there are few writers or directors who could pull off a character like Baroness Safferstä as she truly deserves to be portrayed. And even Count Oetsch, though he's given little to do besides glare at people, still manages to stael a few scenes. Perhaps his finest moment is when he confronts the man he suspects of being his brother's true killer: while the accused man has hysterics and attracts the audiences attention, Oetsch moves slowly into the foreground. His back is to the action, so only we in the audience can see the subtle changes in his expression. Out of sight of the others, his façade is starting to crack. It's taken all his strength to bring the accusation out in the open, and now he is a profoundly shaken man.

But a few flashes of interest aren't enough to save the movie. The film really only takes off midway through the turgid plot, when the action is interrupted by two dream sequences. Both happen immediately after the disappearance of the priest. The first has the Nervous Guy dreaming that an enormous hairy claw reaches through his window and drags him out by his ear. The Nervous Guy leaves the castle (and, mercifully, the film) the next morning.

The second dream is that of a young apprentice to the castle Chef. The boy had been disciplined earlier for stealing pastry frosting; in his dream, he appears magically in the kitchen, where the kindly old priest feeds him the icing with a long spoon. After every mouthful, the boy turns and gives his master a slap across the face. It's a charmingly funny scene, and it breaks up the ponderous seriousness of the story pretty well. The only trouble is, it really has no place in the film. I thought at first that it had some importance to the plot: the boy has been punished, but the priest has come to set things straight. The trouble with this is that the boy really did deserve to be punished, and in fact the dream has no connection to the main story at all. The boy is too minor a character to even have heard of the priest's disappearance, and his dream, however amusing, brings nothing to the story.

The dreams do have an important function, though, even if they contribute nothing to the narrative. They allow Murnau to exercize his imagination a little, to break out of the confines of the script and bend reality a little. The result is a far cry from the towering imagination displayed in his supernatural epics, Nosferatu and Faust, but it does bring some much-needed atmosphere to a very dull movie.

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