Thursday, August 24, 2017

"To something new!"


Returning to stately Osterna Castle after two years of being abroad, Graf (Count) Greven exhibits a demeanor vastly different than his pre-travel behavior.  He instructs his staff to put Osterna on lockdown, because for unexplained reasons he’s quite paranoid and fearful—with no explanation forthcoming.  His faithful manservant (Bernhard Goetzke) contacts a minister (Hermann Picha) who was Greven’s teacher in happier times, and asks him to consider the matter of his master’s melancholia.

Greven tells the minister via flashback that while in India, he filched a statue of Buddha from the Temple of Djaba…because as a collector of rare antiquities, the Count has been mesmerized by the accounts that the magnificent idol possesses mystical healing powers.  He’s wracked with guilt about his deed, however, and is convinced that the priests of that temple are after him, seeking vengeance.  The minister and the manservant, however, are convinced that the cheese has slid off Greven’s cracker.

Later that night, Greven is visited by the temple’s High Priest (Conrad Veidt).  He reacts as you or I would in that situation, emptying a gun into the mystic…but the bullets have no effect.  Greven demands that the priest take his life right that instant…but the mysterious figure replies that he will not, because it has little value to Greven.  He’ll return in seven years to exact the penalty for the theft.  Awakening in his bed with a start, the Count thinks that maybe it was all a nightmare…and then he finds a note attached to the precious statue: “Do not forget…today, seven days hence!” 

German director Robert Wiene is recognized by cinema devotees as one of the major figures in expressionist film, with his best-known work—The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)—often cited as one of the first important horror films.  His 1917 feature Fear (Fürcht) isn’t quite as audacious as Caligari, but coming as early as it did in his film career it demonstrates that Wiene was able to work magic with even the simplest of plots.  Fear also teamed the director with actor Conrad Veidt for the first (the film is purportedly Veidt’s earliest surviving work) of several collaborations including Caligari and The Hands of Orlac (1924).

Conrad Veidt in Fear (1917, a.k.a. Fürcht)
Fear arrived in the House of Yesteryear via an August DVD release from Alpha Video (thanks to Brian Krey for the screener).  Despite some nitpicks, I found it an enjoyable viewing experience—chiefly due to Joseph Martin’s eerie, goose-pimply score.  Veidt, the character great who would later grace such silents as The Beloved Rogue {1927) and The Man Who Laughs (1928), doesn’t have a great deal of screen time in Fear but nevertheless is a most menacing and unforgettable manifestation—one that may or may not be a figment of Greven’s imagination.  I think the movie would have been better served if Veidt’s priest had been a constant presence; when Greven gets his seven-year reprieve (reminiscent of Jabez Stone in The Devil and Daniel Webster), the tension of Fear lags a bit.  But Veidt’s “spirit” more than makes up for his absence in the movie’s final moments; as the horror blog The Devil’s Manor noted in 2011, “Thanks to Veidt, simple double-exposure shots of the spectral priest walking through the castle's hallways look far more creepy than they ought to.”

I wish Wiene (he wrote as well as directed) had made the Greven character in Fear a bit more sympathetic.  It’s hard to empathize with the Count’s plight—he begins his seven years drinking, dancing, and generally letting the good times roll—when his expressed purpose in life while waiting for the Priest’s return is “drain[ing] the cup of happiness to the last dregs!”  (Clearly a Maxwell House man.)  The final section of Greven’s marking off time is spent in the company of a woman (Mechthildis Thein) with whom he’s fallen in love…but I can’t help but get the impression that she was shoehorned into the script only to emphasize the irony at the movie’s end (the Priest decrees that Greven will perish at the hand who he holds dearest).  The relationship between the two should have been focused on more, so that the bittersweet conclusion would have packed a bit more punch.


Now, the (always reliable) IMDb notes that the running time of Fear is 72 minutes (at 18 fps) and the Alpha version is considerably truncated (running 54 minutes).  That might explain my dissatisfaction with the romance angle. I found Fear a most entertaining movie, particularly since I’m a very enthusiastic fan of Conrad Veidt’s work…though admittedly, I’m probably more familiar with his later character turns in American features like Whistling in the Dark (1941—“We part in radiant contentment”) and Casablanca (1942).  Sadly, Veidt would be felled by a heart attack during a game of golf in April 1943 while his valedictory film, Above Suspicion (1943), was released a month later.

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