“Chapter 3, in which two mysterious cars play a major role, and a young woman appears who, for the time being, wishes to remain anonymous (Mady Christians), as she is being pursued by a descendant of Ivan the Terrible (Robert Scholz).”
Along with the fantabulous MABUSE box set I got from Masters of Cinema for being clever, along came a complimentary set of Murnau’s PHANTOM and THE FINANCES OF THE GRAND DUKE. Now, PHANTOM is the one with the reputation, and since you can see Murnau rehearsing the psychological effects of THE LAST LAUGH (a street that topples over to crush the protagonist, mentally) and hijacking Sjostrom’s transparent coach from THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE, it is probably the film upon which most attention deserves to be focussed.
But FINANCES surprised and kinda tickled me. Most commentators consider Murnau to be less than perfectly suited to comedy, and FINANCES is a sort of Ruritanian romance with Lubitschian undertones. Langlois reported that his top cinephages (including Godard?) had to sit through three back-to-back screenings of it until they could venture a hypothesis as to what the devil old FWM was playing at. I found it diverting, and actually fairly funny.
As rom-com, the film does have disadvantages. As the title suggests, high finance plays a role in the narrative, which doesn’t sound too promising. Said narrative is the work of Thea Von Harbou, proboscis monkey-faced Nazi and wife of Fritz Lang, not usually associated with puckish wit or drollery. And the supporting cast includes Max NOSFERATU Schreck, as “the sinister one” — damn you, typecasting!
This makes me think of one of Art Linson’s stories: he was thinking of casting Willem Dafoe (who would go on to reprise Schreck’s most famous role in SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE) in a comedy, and asked his wife, “Do you think Willem Dafoe could make you laugh?” “I don’t know,” she mused, “but I saw him smile once and I had nightmares for a week.”
An unusually antic Mr Schreck (centre).
But oddly, it turns out that Max, largely confined to longshots, isn’t so very sinister as to make chuckles corpsify in the throat, Murnau is by no means ill at ease with the demands of the pacy caper, and Harbou can actually write gags. My favourite being when easy-come-easy-go hero Phillip Collin, boy reporter (Alfred Abel, 45) comes to the aid of a Princess in distress/disguise in a restaurant. She faints, overcome by emotion (something that happens a lot). Collin calls a waiter — “Quick, a cognac!” The waiter returns. Collin drinks the cognac. “I immediately get weak when anybody faints,” he explains.
Elsewhere, we get people who disguise themselves as animals, professionally — for no reason; an “interesting” hand-held shot filmed from a docking rowboat; a vigorous hunchback; a full-scale revolution enacted apparently by four people; financial chicanery; a fast ship; escapes; captures; sulfurous caverns; and further confirmation of my pet theory that all the landscapes flown over in FAUST’s magic carpet ride are to be found in Murnau’s other films — here, it’s the dreamy Mediterranean vistas. And while the plot clearly takes place before the Russian Revolution of 1917, everything on display is pure 1920s chic.