We all know that Germans don’t do comedy—it’s a well established fact, after all. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau certainly doesn’t do comedy. Yet in 1924, stuck between the haunted house mystery of The Haunted Castle, the landmark vampire film Nosferatu, the expressionistic tragedy of The Phantom; and, on the other side, the visionary ingenuity of The Last Laugh, the supernatural allegory of Faust, and the cinematic genius of Sunrise, exists this film, perhaps Murnau’s only comedy. What an oddity it is! The credits read like a who’s-who of German silent cinema greatness: produced by Erich Pommer, photographed by Karl Freund and Franz Planer, designed by Edgar Ulmer, written by Thea von Harbou, adapted from a novel by Frank Heller, and directed by F.W. Murnau. Now, if you were paying attention to that list, and if you know your German silent cinema, one name should stick out as not fitting in with the others, and that’s Frank Heller.
Frank Heller was the pen name of Gunnar Serner, who in the early 20th Century made a name for himself writing detective/mystery/adventure novels in Sweden. His main hero was the dashing, suave Mr. Philipp Collins, played in this film by Alfred Abel. His novel, “Finances of the Grand Duke” was adapted not once, but twice in Germany: here, in Murnau’s film, and again in 1934. The plot itself is rather convoluted and constructed like an old serial adventure: Don Roman (Harry Liedtke) is the carefree Grand Duke of Abacco who finds himself in hard times where he’s crushed under a mountain of debt. Paqueno (Adolphe Engers) is the minister of finance, and pleads with the Duke to marry a Russian Princess named Olga (Mady Christians) whose wealth would solve their problems. Meanwhile, the scheming businessman Markowitz (Guido Herzfeld) wants to purchase part of the Duke’s land to mine sulfur, but the Duke, worried about the welfare of his people won’t allow it. Philipp Collins (Alfred Abel) is the adventurer who has to step in and save the Duke when a letter from Princess Olga proposing marriage to the Duke falls into the wrong hands. What ensues is a series of chases and mistaken identities.
Finances of the Grand Duke is such a breezy romantic comedy adventure that one wonders why a director like Murnau would have had any interest in the project. After all, Murnau took himself seriously as an artist and even had a background in art history, and his recognized masterpieces reveal a director who seems most at home in grand, tragic, visually inventive, expressionistic dramas. The answer may lie somewhere in the fact that the film is a mere shadow of its original self. In terms of runtime, this sub-eighty minute version runs about half of what the film did on its initial release. Reportedly, what was cut most were Murnau’s non-plot related shots of the paradisal locations where filming took place, such as the Island Rab in Croatia, Italy and Yugoslavia. Although some can still be seen in the film if you’re looking for them: the opening establishing shot being an obvious example, as well as a phenomenal shot of an arching bridge.
Without Murnau’s opulent visual artistry, the result is a film that plays like a serial drama. In the audio commentary1, film historian David Kalat, even compares its episodic format (in six title-carded chapters, complete with scrolling text introductions) to the American television series 24. Indeed, one could imagine this film being a wholly commercial endeavor for its time and, apparently, it was. It’s likely what led Murnau in later years to disown and dismiss the film, and it seems that many of those around him did so as well. So the big question remains, “How are we to approach this film now that it’s been found and restored?” It’s a film that doesn’t fit in easily with Murnau’s filmography or style, or what we know (or think we know) about German silent cinema. The answer is that if we can approach it on its own terms, Finances of the Grand Duke is a delightful film with a lot to admire but even more to enjoy.
However, the film isn’t completely divorced from Murnau’s oeuvre, style or German cinema tradition. In fact, the film feels like a comedic version of Murnau’s The Phantom, which is another film about a man who finds himself in debt and in love. But that film is a tragedy, even though it feels closer to Murnau’s distinct visual style. Both films were written by Thea von Harbou, who was the literary mind behind many of Fritz Lang’s greatest films. Von Harbou’s writing style could be quite verbose and very literary, which would seem to be an uneasy fit for Murnau’s penchant for image-centric cinema. Indeed, von Harbou’s style fits more comfortably with Fritz Lang’s story-driven films, while Carl Mayer, Murnau’s other primary writing collaborator, has a much more spare, cinematic style which allowed Murnau to be more visually inventive on films like Sunrise and The Last Laugh.
Perhaps the best feature of the film isn’t those behind the camera, but those in front of it. Mady Christians is lovely as Olga, and Adolphe Engers is, at times, hilarious as Paqueno. Harry Liedtkie is a fittingly insouciant Duke, and we’re even treated to a cameo by Max Schrek, aka Nosferatu. Alfred Abel steals the show as Collins, however. Abel was known for his naturalistic acting style in an age better remembered for theatrical over-acting, and is utterly charming in the role of Philipp Collins. Our introduction to him must be one of the funniest and oddest in cinema history, with Collins orchestrating an indoor dog race. Collins is such a smart, smooth, likable character, and Abel plays him with such panache that one could imagine, as Kalat suggests, Cary Grant (or maybe George Clooney) delivering his lines. What’s more he glides and acts with the kind of ease that Lubitsch’s characters were famous for doing.
In fact, that “Lubitsch touch” is all over this one, and it’s not terribly surprising since both Lubitsch and Murnau were protégés of the legendary German theater director, Max Reinhardt. Indeed, this film seems more indebted to Reinhardt’s style, which was more naturalistic and impressionistic as opposed to German film’s silent expressionism. But Murnau has a tendency to take from both opposing styles when needed. His expressionistic touches can still be seen in the outdoor, nighttime chase sequence. Another expressionistic sequence has the Duke dreaming of his friends (or subjects, maybe) in an idyllic setting which is then destroyed and laid barren by the sulfur mining. Most of the interiors, however, have a more naturalistic design to them, and Murnau’s subtle visual genius can be noted in the precise, balanced frames and his use of geometric shapes within frames.
Ultimately, The Finances of the Grand Duke is somewhat of a peculiarity, though perhaps less abnormal than some might assume. Kalat argues that German cinema was actually quite rich with these kinds of films—and all forms of comedy, really—during the period, but they simply didn’t get exported since Americans would have preferred seeing comedies with stars they recognized. The argument makes sense, but it doesn’t make it any easier to fully appreciate this film. In a sense, it may be best to approach this film in the mindset one would of Lubitsch’s silent films, rather than Murnau’s. Otherwise, the dissonance between one’s expectations and what the film is would likely be too much to reconcile.
1 This is a rare case where I would highly recommend everyone take a listen to the commentary whether you liked the film or not. The majority of the information in this review came from Kalat’s delightful commentary, which is probably one of the five best I’ve ever heard. Kalat is extremely informative, but he keeps it fun, light, and entertaining during the entire runtime – his commentary is full of interesting facts about everyone involved, the production, and German silent cinema. Where else will you hear a commentator comparing a 1924 German silent film to 24, and doing it convincingly?