Phantom / The Grand Duke’s Finances
PHANTOM: Director: F. W. Murnau / Script: Thea von Harbou (from a novel by Gerhart Hauptman) / DP: Axel Graatkjaer
Cast: Alfred Abel / Frida Richard / Aud Egede-Nissen / Hans Heinrich von Twardowski
THE GRAND DUKE’S FINANCES: Director: F. W. Murnau / Script: Thea von Harbou (from a novel by Frank Heller) / DP: Karl Freund
Cast: Mady Christians / Harry Liedtke / Robert Sholtz / Alfred Abel
Year: 1922 / 1924
Watch a master of silent film invent his own legend…
A double bill from F. W. Murnau for you today, courtesy of The Masters of Cinema collection.
One of the great pioneering directors from the silent era, the German made his mark with the seminal horror classic Nosferatu, but then encountered the ‘second album problem’: how to follow-up on a stone-cold classic?
You don’t, obviously; easier by far to switch genres and explore new boundaries. These two films show Murnau doing just that.
The first, Phantom (1922) revolves around a dreamy poet, infatuated with an unreachable love; an obsession that leads him to defraud a wealthy aunt in the pursuit of his hopeless goal (that’s poetry for you). The film uses FX of a ghostly carriage driven by this elusive target, as a visual metaphor for the love-struck condition he finds himself in; he runs, but can never catch up. Ah, poetry…
The second film, The Grand Duke’s Finances (1924) is a comedy of manners, in which a spendthrift Duke from a Mediterranean island, is pursued by a Russian princess who wants to marry him and give him her money (ironically, this comes six years after the Romanov’s were murdered). Oh, and there’s a Capitalist who wants to buy a chunk of the island on which sits a massive deposit of sulphur… Err, okay?
Both films strike me as quaint and naive today (unlike Nosferatu) but context is all: at the time these were made, Germany was beginning to experience the political & financial turmoil of the early Weimar period and Murnau-the-artist, was simply responding to what he saw around him. The material – escapist, fantastical wish-fulfilment – provided cheer when darker themes (i.e. Nosferatu) were out of favour. The country was starving and the job of rebuilding an economy in the face of Allied reparations was onerous. So, yes, let’s go to the movies for a laugh! Notable too, in Grand Duke, is a nod to the famous ‘approaching train’ shot used by the Lumiere brothers to scare unsuspecting viewers out of their wits.
Grand Duke also includes a bizarre sequence of an indoor dog race; no, really: Watch and be amazed, not only by the bonkers idea of the thing, but at its execution. It’s not vital to the plot, yet Murnau executes with such an assured touch, it becomes adjunct to Mise-en-scéne. We see for ourselves, that if this is how the guy lives, no wonder he’s going broke: Pure Cinema in the silent era.
Watch this to see how – and where – it all began, in the hands of a master. Dazzling.
I see no salvation for Abacco unless it falls from the sky!