The Haunted Castle (1921)

by popegrutch

Originally released with the more prosaic title “Schloss Vogelöd” (“Castle Vogelöd”), this early work by F.W. Murnau skirts the edges of horror and Expressionism, without fully committing to either. Murnau does show his talent for psychological drama here, as well as atmosphere and narrative structure.

The movie begins by showing us a large manor, drenched in rain. We learn from intertitles that this is the home of Lord von Vogelschrey (Arnold Korff) and that the traditional hunting season has been rained out for several days. We move to the interior of the castle and see the host and his bored guests, who are playing cards, smoking, reading newspapers and the like. A servant enters the room and announces Count Oetsch (Lothar Mehnert), which seems to disconcert everyone. Count Oetsch enters and Vogelschrey takes him aside to another room. The guests outside gossip and we learn that the count got his title a few years ago on the death of his brother by shooting, and that he is suspected of the crime. This rumor gets nourished by a retired Judge of the District Court. Vogelscrhey informs Oetsch that his brother’s widow will soon be here, implying that he (Oetsch) should leave, but Oetsch acts nonchalant and makes it clear he intends to stay.

Vogelschrey’s wife rushes to him, fearful of the scene that will be made when the two see one another, but he refuses to be so rude as to throw the man out. Count Oetsch now joins the other guests and offers to amuse them to with his “Powers of Prophecy.” He predicts that two shots will be fired, apparently a reference to the delayed hunting, but the others take it as more ominous. The widow (Olga Tschechowa) of the murder victim now arrives, along with her new husband, Baron Safferstätt (Paul Bildt). They refuse to acknowledge Oetsch, or even look at him when he bows his greeting. Oetsch glares at the camera, but does nothing. The baroness threatens to leave, but is dissuaded when she learns that Father Faramund, a friend and relative of the deceased husband, is expected from Rome.

The next day, the papers predict sunny weather and everyone mounts up to take advantage of the good hunting, except for Oetsch who does not join them, nor do the baron and his wife. In fact, a couple of scenes here of the women playing with children show us that the wives do not participate in hunting, but they also give the baroness a chance to indicate to the countess that her marriage is not entirely happy. The rain begins shortly after the hunting party rides out and everyone returns, drenched and discouraged, through the gate. Apparently just to be contrary, Count Oetsch goes hunting in the wind and rain. Shortly after his departure, Father Faramund arrives and the others assume Oetsch was trying to avoid seeing him. The baroness suddenly seems to dread speaking to him, but she does agree to see him in private.

A series of flashbacks begin in which the baroness relives the early, happy days of her marriage to the first Count Oetsch (Paul Hartmann), and the decline of that happiness as he became obsessed with theology and spiritualism. He insisted that true happiness required the renunciation of worldly things, and so pulled away from her and their life together, burying himself in old books. She admits a growing resentment for his holier-than-thou attitude and that she drifted to the arms of Baron Safferstätt for consolation. She breaks off before confessing to anything and the priest leaves without giving her absolution.

Things in the castle become even more tense the next day and Count Oetsch and the Baroness accuse one another of the murder. She asks to speak with Father Faramund again that evening but it is reported that he has disappeared. Suspicion naturally falls on Oetsch. Has he killed the father to prevent him from finding out what the baroness knows? With the climate in the house becoming ever more unbearable, the baroness takes to wandering the hallway and stairs in a kind of trance, seemingly on the verge of complete breakdown, while the count becomes ever more stern and aggressive. Finally Father Faramund re-appears without explanation and agrees to hear her confession. She tells him that on the night her husband was shot, she had a row with him and wished in front of the guests for “something truly evil” to happen – a rejection of his saintly attitudes. Baron Safferstätt took this to be an incitement and shot the baron that night, though she insists this was not what she intended. Nevertheless, she accepts responsibility for the crime, and with few other choices, married the man who murdered her husband. The two of them had hoped for some kind of happiness, but the relationship felt empty and doomed.

Now Father Faramund takes his false beard and his wig off, revealing himself as count Oetsch, who now can justify his innocence. Baron Safferstätt shoots himself. The true Father Faramund comes to the castle.

Despite the title, we don’t have any ghosts here, nor even the Gothic device of a cursed noble family line, that one might expect in a “haunted” castle. It’s more of a crime-thriller, except for the heavy psychological aspects, with a wrongly accused man trying to clear his name and reveal the true killer through subterfuge. What’s interesting for 1921 is that our “hero” is so dislikable: No one is rooting for Count Oetsch, a man who forces himself on his host and refuses to even acknowledge the pain of a recent widow. Lord von Vogelschrey seems to be the protagonist, at least at first, but he’s so easily dominated by Oetsch and other strong personalities, including his wife, that we never really identify with him, either. Murnau places the audience at a distance from the action buy not giving us a clear hero, making us observers like the other random folks of the hunting party, and allowing us to observe rather than become involved. Normally that sort of experiment never works, and it may have hurt this movie’s potential at the box office or in critical acclaim, but I would say that Murnau pulls it off pretty well, considering that he was only thirty three at the time, and fairly new to film making.

This lobby card is more Expressionist than any of the photography.

Also despite the very recognizable name of Fritz Arno Wagner on camera, this movie doesn’t look like anything we’ve come to think of as “Expressionist.” There are certainly no bizarrely abstract sets like in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but there are also no oddly angled shots, no heavily shadowed areas, no strong contrasts, not even a single light source from above that evokes light streaming from a window. Lotte Eisner doesn’t even mention this film in her magisterial study of German Expressionism (The Haunted Screen), but I suspect that was more because she didn’t have a print available to examine when she wrote it in 1952. Nevertheless, in that book, she does discuss one pictorial element that I left out of that list above, which “The Haunted Castle” has in Spades: Eisner tells us that Germans are “obsessed with staircases.” It may sound like an odd thing to pick out, but here’s what she has to say about it (p.121):

I prefer to leave it to the psychoanalysts to discover what repression they please in this fondness for stairs and corridors. But remembering the German fascination for Werden (becoming) rather than Sein (being), it could perhaps be granted nevertheless that their staircases represent an upward movement, the degrees of which are represented by the stairs themselves. And we can perhaps infer from the striking German respect for symmetry that the symmetry of a staircase embodies ideas of balance and harmony.

I didn’t take a count, but it looked to me as if maybe 25-30% of the shots in this movie incorporated a staircase. Characters are constantly ascending or descending them, sometimes coming to the end of one staircase only to quickly approach another. This is especially true of the baroness in her climactic wrestling with the past. To some degree, I was probably noticing them because I’d just read this, and it’s likely that it seemed more of a motif than it was, like people complaining about all of the columns in Evgeni Bauer’s movies. Still, there’s no denying that Castle Vogelöd is a castle of staircases, a place with many levels linked in unlikely ways, and I can’t help seeing that as a metaphor for the interior worlds of our characters.

The other element that is, if not strictly Expressionist, at least somewhat less naturalistic than we expect in cinema today, is the acting. People tend to move stiffly, and express their mental states with their bodies, even though their faces are often held in mask-like stillness. This especially describes the performances of Mehnert and Tschechowa. Mehnert is constantly glowering with menace, seemingly on the brink of violence. Tschechowa, although she holds her face still, gestures and seems on the verge of a faint at nearly all times. More than Expressionism, she reminds me of the Diva performances of Italian actresses from the previous decade (see, for instance, Assunta Spina). These may have been a deliberate influence, or it may have been that Murnau wanted both of these actors to behave as though they were carrying a great secret, which they kept from showing on their faces, but which came out through body language nonetheless.

Finally, it’s interesting that in 1921 Murnau made this gloomy movie filled with barons, counts, judges, and other representatives of the aristocracy. At the end of the war in 1918, representatives of this class had handed over the reigns of government to the Social Democrats, who were put into the unenviable position of negotiating peace with the Allies and replacing the monarchical government of the deposed Kaiser. They somewhat optimistically declared a Republic, and some halting efforts were made at furthering the revolution, either along more democratic lines or in emulation of the (still largely not understood) model of the Soviet Union or some combination of both. In March of 1920, an attempt was made to overthrow the Republic from the Right, and in March of 1921, some final efforts were made to push it further to the Left. At any rate, the old aristocracy was increasingly irrelevant on the national scene, and a pall of doom hung about it, which seems represented in this manor full of useless people waiting for the sun to come out for a day. They carry prejudices against the innocent, they are too weak to assert themselves even when an outsider invades their presence without invitation, and they gossip and bandy falsehoods about in their spare time. There is little sense, by the end, that anyone’s life has been made better by the revelation of the truth, only that count Oetsch has achieved some kind of grim satisfaction in the death of Safferstätt. The title card reading “Evening Peace” near the end seems to speak to the dashed hopes of the German people in a fair peace and the general sense of hopelessness and dread pervading the land in 1921.

Director: F. W. Murnau

Camera: Fritz Arno Wagner, László Schäffer

Starring: Olga Tschechowa, Lothar Mehnert, Arnold Korff, Paul Hartmann, Paul Bildt, Julius Falkenstein

Run Time: 1 Hr, 21 Min

You can watch it for free: here.