August 8, 2019
The Haunted Castle – Germany, 1921
F.W. Murnau’s misleadingly titled The Haunted Castle has to be the longest 81 minutes I’ve ever spent watching a movie. With its glacial pacing and long stretches devoted to reaction shots whose only function is to demonstrate how much pain a character is in, the film was a good reminder that even the greatest of filmmakers can only do so much with a substandard screenplay. And I give Murnau credit for trying. From the lighting on the castle that makes it seem both cursed at night and a place of radiance in the day to the intriguing diversity in social atmosphere and physical space, the film has the look of both a classic horror film and an expressionistic Gothic painting. If only it had a plot.
That last sentence is a bit of an exaggeration, for the film indeed does have a narrative that drives it. The problem is what little story there is could be more succinctly told in a 35-45 minute short. Extended an additional 30 minutes, the story lingers far too long of inconsequential moments. For example, characters stare into the camera for what seems like an eternity instead of just answering basic questions; a priest takes far too long entering a room; and an outdoor scene of a coach arriving has a tediousness to it – we see the empty road, then the coach in the distance, the coach closer up, the coach passing the camera, the coach coming to a halt. And after all that, we don’t even get to see who gets out. Instead, we cut the the castle and see the butler rush in and announce someone’s arrival, thereby making the scene entirely superfluous.
Here is the plot in a nutshell, and no, it does not involve an actual haunted house or the ghost-like figure that graces the poster and DVD cover. A rich man (Lothan Mehnert) assumed to have killed his brother for money shows up unexpected at the home of a wealthy upperclassman (Arnold Korff) who’s hosting a fox hunt for a number of guests. One of the guests is the widow of the slain brother (Olga Tschechowa), clearly setting up a confrontation. Also on his way is a priest whom the widow considers a confidant. The impression given is that the presence of this trio will set sparks flying and possibly lead to murder. As the pieces of this mystery are being assembled, we, the audience, wait, and we wait, enduring conversations in which characters speak in code so as not to reveal anything too soon. Thus, what could be a crisp, compelling tale of revenge and murder becomes an exercise in clock-watching. Murnau and his producers must have wanted the film to be long enough to quality as a feature film; audiences are more likely to just want it to be over.
Watching it, I was reminded of all of the jokes about silent acting on account of its supposed repetitive emotional looks and exaggerated physical movements. For the most part, I have found such attributes to be the exception, not the rule. Here, however, we get them in abundance, often from the same character. The widow, for example, is rarely seen with an expression that could be called naturalistic, and the camera dwells so often of the mysterious, angst-ridden face of the stranger that you half expect him to be revealed as a creature of the night hell-bent on avenging a fellow creature staked through the heart in a previous movie. And then there’s the unwelcome presence of comic characters, whose only purpose seems to be to disrupt the eerie seriousness of the situation that the other characters are trying so desperately to create.
When it was finally time for the mystery to be resolved, I no longer cared. For all its time spent on depressed or rage-filled looks, there is very little that engages the audience or makes them sympathetic to its lead characters. The stranger is bully, the widow keeps the audience at a distance by acting like a mute, and the priest just hangs out in the shadows. In fact, the only character who elicited any empathy from me was the owner of the castle. After all, all he wants is to have a good time hunting foxes with his friends. Instead, he gets a gloomy, rain-filled weekend in which time seems to be punishing him. It certainly felt like it was punishing me. (on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino)