Schloss Vogelöd Review
Murnau’s 1921 silent, Schloss Vogelöd, presents an exciting prospect for fans of the director’s innovative labours, and for fans of early cinematic history. The movie lends a fascinating snapshot of the embryonic yet rapid development of the medium of film in the early twenties, and also provides an intriguing insight into both Murnau’s growing stature as a director, and the impact of German filmmaking at this early stage. In fact, such elements provide more cumulative intrigue than the actual entertainment output, which, whilst ultimately fulfilling, does for some periods prove a little tedious and challenging.
It's useful to observe Schloss Vogelöd within an historical context. Following producer Erich Pommer's (Decla-Bioscop) merger of publishing house Ullstein with the production company Uco, a move which would facilitate the goal of Ullstein novels being converted into film by Uco, the company commissioned Murnau to transform Rudolf Stratz’s novel, Schloss Vogelöd, into a motion picture. And with such a title (with the English translation being ”The Haunted Castle”), so begins the slightly incongruous nature of Murnau’s picture. For, whilst the title may lead one to believe that the movie sits at least partially in a ghostly or horror camp, the picture is actually more akin to a murder mystery, tinged with some gentle elements of unease and a short, isolated set piece which hints at Murnau’s emerging mastery of the chilling.
Stratz’s mainly enjoyable though rather pedestrian tale centres on a hunting party which has gathered at the impressive home of Lord Vogelöd. Much to the frustration of the bloodthirsty hunters, the hunting is a non-starter for many days thanks to the heavy rain, and their rambling conversation and inadvisable chain-smoking is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Count Oetsch, a man who is presumed responsible for the death of his brother. His reception to the party is somewhat frosty, thanks to the presence of Baron Safferstätt and the later arrival of the Baroness, who was previously married to Oetsch’s brother. Despite Count Oetsch’s presence, the Baroness decides to stay at the residence, mainly because Father Faramund of Rome is soon due to arrive, and she has a requirement to speak to the holy man. Cue suspicions, confessions, and revelations, and the stage is set for an unlikely yet acceptable enough unravelling of the secrets surrounding the assembled guests.
The fact that Schloss Vogelöd is not a straight-out horror picture is not a problem per se, though there’s a sense that the more sinister moments provide a welcome respite from what can be a somewhat hard-going viewing experience. Indeed, it’s the very fact that the viewing can be hard work which makes this an interesting slice of cinematic history; the film’s foundation is shared equally between the established conventions of the theatre stage, and the emerging innovations (being freshly carved by Murnau’s creative hand as much as any other director) of motion pictures, so whilst the delivery wanders into tedium at times, the opportunity to see the evolution of film at this early stage neutralises such negatives.
The spectre of the stage is clearly visible in the very fabric of the film’s structure; the story, for instance, is delivered via five separate acts. Additionally, Murnau’s acting community expose their stage roots with regularity, perhaps most notably with Olga Tschechowa’s (a relative of Anton Chekhov) wonderfully over-dramatised delivery, which frequently borders on the comical. Perhaps most challenging to the modern viewer is the static nature of the camera, and despite Murnau’s excellent knack for editing the static shots to generate tension and the flow of the story, the fixed camera positions result in the relatively sedate plot regularly flirting with tedium over the 82 minute production.
Murnau uses a variety of techniques to provide a counter-balance to the tedium. The static element of the shots is unavoidable, yet Murnau is careful to ensure excellent composition and framing at every moment. Perhaps most stunning of all is the shot which demonstrates the emotional gulf between the Baron and Baroness as they lean outwards across two sides of an enormous hall; the image is precise, vast, and magnificent.
Such scenes demonstrate the director’s effective use of Robert Herlth’s impressive set design. Equally significant is Murnau’s use of Hermann Warm’s art direction. Warm was tasked by Murnau with creating a “strange atmosphere, like being semi-conscious”, and he went to considerable lengths to do so, including using a giant ventilator to blow the trees and an enormous rain machine to provide precipitation during the ambitious and impressive countryside shots. Most crucial to disrupting the patches of tedium are the dream sequences. The dream haunting of the anxious gentleman, for instance, hints at the deft hand Murnau would later show for the sinister and the eerie, and the bizarre dream of the young boy who works as an assistant to the chef is, whilst seemingly irrelevant to the plot, a visual boast by the director of the special effects and manipulation of images which were becoming feasible, should filmmakers be daring and creative enough.
Murnau would progress to create far better films, and it is indeed difficult to avoid making any reference to the later masterpiece which is Nosferatu, especially since some of the promise which would be fulfilled by the ultimate vampire film is evident on a much smaller scale in the modest Schloss Vogelöd. Yet with a finale which just about scrapes enough satisfaction to justify the sometimes wearing build-up, some interludes which are transient in terms of the plot but crucial in terms of much needed visual stimulation, and an eye for composition which is continually precise and often striking, this little insight into Murnau’s development and the evolution of early filmmaking is well worth your investment of time.
Eureka release Schloss Vogelöd on region 0 DVD as part of their Masters of Cinema series, and it is clear that they have poured much love into this impressive product. Resplendent with original artwork adorning the front cover and containing a 32 page booklet, this is a high quality release from a company which genuinely respects the output it publishes.
Bearing in mind that Schloss Vogelöd premiered in 1921, Eureka have released a version of the film which is visually stunning, and the level of detail depicted is deserving of much praise. Indeed, with the definition and level of detail on display here, it is possible to pick out unusually fine detail, such as the intricate patterns in rugs, and clear reflections of the actors in mirrors. Staying true to the original film and choosing to avoid what Eureka term as a “travesty” to “the integrity of both the human form and cinematographic space”, the aspect ratio here is the native format of 1.37:1, and the company are keen to ensure that you see the film as originally intended, going so far as to provide instructions on how to avoid any modern TV settings distorting the intended proportions and presentation of Murnau’s film.
Eureka’s presentation features a 2002 construction of the film from different sources, namely an original negative from the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv (Berlin), and a nitrate print with Portuguese intertitles (from the Fundacao Cinemteca Brasileira). Rather than use English intertitles styled to look like the original German ones, the presentation here mainly uses flash titles from the original negative. Some of these were missing, however, and so there are replaced intertitles which have been created by referring to the original shooting script, and a preserved Decla-Bioscop title list from March 31st, 1921. You can spot these added intertitles by looking out for the unobtrusive FWMS logo which is present in the lower left corner of any such title cards. Note that Eureka have provided this and additional information at the opening of the film. With as much original material being included here as possible, Eureka have published a respectful presentation of Murnau’s film with a genuine badge of authenticity which is surely difficult to rival.
You can choose to play the film with or without English subtitles. The subtitles are clear and readable.
The musical score is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, and as silent movie musical accompaniments go, it’s an acceptable enough piano-based backdrop. The clarity is fine, and there are no issues with distortion or hiss. The tonal quality of the piano is also fine, with the higher end treble notes avoiding any excessive brightness, and the lower notes establishing suitable depth.
Eureka provide an impressive extra in the form of Luciano Berriatua’s 2007 documentary, The Language of the Shadows, studying the first period of Murnau’s career, and Schloss Vogelöd is given a decent-sized slice of analysis during the 31 minute piece. What’s particularly pleasing is to hear commentary from people who worked with Murnau, or who are relatives of those whom were close to the man.
The programme is presented in German with English subtitles by default, although you can remove these if you wish.
Additionally, as previously mentioned, the release includes a well presented 32 Page Booklet. This warmly-welcomed addition includes photos, artwork, viewing notes, and film credits. Most pleasingly of all, there is the inclusion of two essays. The first is Charles Jameux’s 1966 On Murnau’s Schloss Vogelöd, in newly translated form from the original French version which appeared in Positif. Whilst the opening of the essay feels intentionally esoteric, it’s worth persisting through the first few paragraphs, as Jameux continues to make some stimulating points and presents aspects of the film’s impact which may not be immediately apparent on an initial viewing.
The second essay is simply Schloss Vogelöd by Lotte H Eisner, and is an excerpt from Eisner’s 1973 Murnau, making it all the more desirable since that item is now out of print. Eisner’s essay is somewhat assertive and almost aggressive in its statements, and in its rejections of other commentary on Murnau’s piece, and she doesn’t hesitate to note that the gentlemen at the house are “all very ugly!”. Of particular interest is Eisner’s comment that Schloss Vogelöd is not a horror film, a sentiment which I largely agree with (it is indeed not a horror film, yet it has horror elements, and the title itself can be considered somewhat misleading).
For all of her bolshy, spiky words, Eisner’s piece remains the more readable of the two, and provides an insightful and sometimes fun guide to the film.
Finally, there are also some small words surrounding the tinting used in the movie to round up a high quality booklet.
Whilst not Murnau’s best film, and teetering on the brink of tedium at various points, Schloss Vogelöd remains an important instalment in Murnau and movie history thanks to its straddling of the stage and the emerging medium of film. And with Eureka treating viewers to high quality extras, attractive packaging, and an authentic, respectful, and hugely impressive visual presentation, for fans of Murnau and early film history, this is surely an essential purchase.