Thursday, November 29, 2018

Review - The Finances of the Grand Duke

November 29, 2018

The Finances of the Grand Duke – Germany, 1924

A curious thing occurs towards the end of F.W. Murnau’s The Finances of the Grand Duke: A woman looks at the film’s main character and asks, “Is that the Grand Duke?” Now, out of context, such a remark would raise no eyebrows whatsoever. However, the character who utters it is a Russian princess named Olga who has already indicated that she is willing both to marry him and to pay off the massive debt that he has accrued after years apparently spent living lavishly and foolhardily. This is, of course, not a new situation to silent films – Keaton and Chaplin practically made a career out of marrying someone in the last scene, and often, it was to someone they had just met 15 minutes earlier. However, in Murnau’s film, it is an odd choice, and not even Olga’s impassioned exclamation that she was moved by the way his island came to the aid of a sinking Russian ship – presumably during the First World War – completely erases the awkwardness of the situation. In my view, the Grand Duke’s assistance would be cause for an award or banquet in his honor, not the hand and instant affections of a princess.

But I digress slightly. The Finances of the Grand Duke is part comedy, part espionage thriller, with not enough of either to qualify as laugh-out-loud funny or thoroughly intriguing. This does not make it a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, yet it does knock it down a few notches. The film begins, oddly enough, as a comedy. In its opening scene, we watch as the Grand Duke (Harry Liedtke) sits on the stone wall of his island palace and tosses money in the general direction of some young boys in the water below him. I initially assumed the scene was establishing the Grand Duke as a disrespectful spoiled brat, the kind that treats his subjects as if they were circus performers anxiously waiting for their next mouthful of peanuts. This interpretation is justified in the next scene, in which the Grand Duke is informed that the island’s benefactor has arrived wanting his money back. The Grand Duke’s posture quickly resembles that of a child who been told to go to bed before he’s ready, his arms folded, his feet pacing in that frustrated way that only an adult with the mentality of a five-year-old employs.

Upon seeing that, I settled in for an uproarious look at an immature ruling class and the hilarity that ensues when the Grand Duke finds himself unable to pay back the money he borrowed. How surprised I was then when the film suddenly adopted a much more serious tone, taking on issues such as the exploitation of both workers and the environment and detailing the perilous position that powerful people can find themselves in if they don’t recognize the tell-tale signs of danger. In the film, a mysterious stranger dangles millions of dollars in front of the Duke, his only request that the island’s sulfur deposits be placed under his control. The Grand Duke, imagining the waste that extraction would cause to both the environment and the island’s citizens on account of their laboring for so long in unhealthy conditions, turns the man down. The man, somewhat predictably, elects not to take no for an answer, and away we go.

The Duke comes across as a genuinely nice guy, yet it should be noted that the film never shows him being a dictator or provides examples of his supposed benevolence. He smiles quite a lot and seems to put an awful lot of faith in fate. In fact, his comments about what is needed to save his island have an uncanny knack for occurring shortly after he voices them. He is the heart of the film, yet not its most interesting character. That distinction falls to Professor Philipp Collins, well-played by Alfred Abel. Collins is one of those well-to-do professors we so often find in movies of this time, meaning he appears wealthier than any professor any of us have likely ever met. Collins, however, also has other distinguishing characteristics. For one, he has the skills of a petty thief, yet the conscious of Robin Hood. In one scene, we see him sneak into the office of a professional blackmailer and remove several embarrassing documents. Collin is also a gentleman with a grand understanding of irony and timing, and his scenes with Olga (Mady Christians) are some of the best in the film. However, the character never quite felt realistic.

The film is split into acts, and each scroll uses wit to introduce the characters that appear soon after. It is a tone that is not always matched by what follows. I found myself mildly amused by what transpired in the film, yet never completely engaged emotionally. Towards the end of the film, the pace quickens a bit, yet even here it fails to present us with a logical scenario. We’re asked to believe that an island nation run by a dictator has no defenses or army and that its government could be toppled by just four individuals. We’re also asked to imagine the island’s residents and to accept their adoration for the Duke, for Murnau has elected not to include a single crowd shot of the island’s inhabitants. In fact, if memory serves, we only really see three of them throughout the entire film.

The Finances of the Grand Duke is a break from the dark films that Murnau was most known for. It is a simple story told with simple techniques. While lacking the emotional punch of his other work, the film indeed gives viewers a good sense of his range as a director. As for the film itself, it is a minor work, one that will provide viewers a few chuckles and then be forgotten a few minutes later. (on DVD from Kino)

2 and a half stars

*The Finances of the Grand Duke is a silent film.

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