By Tony Williams.
Like the recently restored Behind the Door (1919), Der Hund von Baskerville was shown at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival but was supposedly believed lost at one time. However, due to collaboration between Flicker Alley and the Polish film archive Filoteka Narodowa, this last silent version of a Sherlock Holmes novel, filmed many times before and after, is now available on DVD, the result of combining surviving materials from European film archives. Originally existing in eight reels, this 66-minute copy is the most complete version available with magazine reproductions, photo stills, and captions compensating for missing portions of reels two and three and excellent appropriate musical score provided by Gunther Buchwald.
Both inside and outside night scenes reveal distinctive German expressionist lighting techniques with panning shots of a stormy moor in iris-frame, a close-up introducing the baying Baskerville Hound, a low-angle close up of butler Barrymore anticipating that shot of Norman Bates conversing with Arbogast in Psycho (1960), the arrival of Holmes and Watson seen through Sir Henry’s mirror as he fixes his tie, and a flashback documenting the death of Sir Charles leading to Holmes making the “elementary” deduction “supernatural dogs do not leave footprints” to the less intellectually agile Dr. Watson who is only a few steps behind Nigel Bruce’s familiar performances in the later Basil Rathbone series.
Perhaps the best performance is that of Fritz Rasp (1891-1976). (1) Perhaps most well-known to Western audiences as “Slim” in Metropolis (1927), Rasp appears to resemble the director in facial appearance, with long hair and frenzied gestures also evoking Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s Rotwang. Although his introduction suffers from the missing footage, in this version he dominates the screen in his first cinematic appearance far better than Carlyle Blackwell’s “genial Sherlock Holmes” seen playing the violin in his opening shot. Oswald later inserts a dominant overhead point-of-view shot as Rasp’s Stapleton looks down on Sir Henry, again attracting his “ward” Beryl, a scene matched by an accompanying long shot panning up from the duo to him watching above and down again to the romantic couple. Oswald also further frames Rasp in an extreme low-angle close-up, one more eerie than the later shot of eyes watching concealed within a suit of armor. Several scenes in this film reveal Oswald’s cinematic prowess as a director making one long to see other examples of his work. One unique compositional shot frames the perplexed Watson chasing a fugitive on the moors, pausing in the right foreground, then turning back as a shadowy figure in the distant left background looks at him.
The specially composed Buchwald score ideally complements the suspenseful overtones of the film, especially in the scene where Watson is about to shoot the intruder entering the hidden cave he has discovered on the moor. As the figure approaches, the recognizable face of Holmes appears, the music turning from threatening overtones to the violin theme earlier used to introduce Holmes and performed in a subtle and unobtrusive manner.
Another shot displays expert use of the moving camera as it tracks right and left following the movements of Sir Henry and Beryl as they hear the sound of the hound outside baying in pursuit of its quarry. Holmes later shoots the hound revealing the fearful “Geisterhund” as being nothing more than a huge mastiff with phosphorus painted on its jaws to resemble the hellish lit breath emerging from its portrait in Baskerville Hall. One still reproduced in the booklet shows a missing scene of Sir Henry, Watson, and suspicious butler Barrymore, with Watson studying the huge hound with fiery breath that appears to be about to jump out of its frame. One wonders why this object is there in the first place. Perhaps it may signify another revelation of a pathological English upper class that never darkens the doorsteps of those other healthy ideological images conveyed by Downton Abbey and Victoria? However, we will finally know the true story as well as being relieved from any repetition of that old cliché – “The butler did it.” Like the earlier 1914 version, the film concludes with happy ending. Sir Henry and rescued heroine embrace in each other’s arms, with Holmes never mentioning his fee but only asking for a cravat to replace his own used in the line of duty, as opposed to the desired cigarette in the 1914 film version. If not “officers and gentlemen,” both Holmes protagonists are detectives and gentlemen. As opposed to the 1914 version where an aged Watson only makes one brief appearance that is really redundant half-way through the narrative, a deceived Watson arrives here with constabulary to the rescue only to learn that he has been tricked by the villain. Nigel Bruce is not too far away!
Bonus material includes a ten-minute short film “Arthur Conan Doyle and The Hound of the Baskervilles,” interviewing Doyle experts Glen Miranker and Russell Merritt, and a 13-minute featurette “Restoring Richard Oswald’s Der Hund von Baskerville. Both are directed by Jim Granato, the last also featuring Polish archivist Elzbieta Wysocka. Both naturally concentrate on Doyle and the novel, the first exploring the origins of the tale with legends of the demon hounds of Devon that led to Doyle’s revival of Holmes, supposedly eliminated by Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. However, little, if anything, is said about director Richard Oswald in both features, something that Merritt corrects in his booklet essay “On the Trail of the Hound” as well as Munich archivist Stefan Drossler’s highly informative article on the 1914 version. Although emphasis falls understandably on Doyle and his novel, more essays could have been added about the significant place in film history that the now virtually forgotten Richard Oswald (1880-1963) once had. A prolific director in the silent and early sound era, he fled Nazi Germany just in time, unlike his fellow Austrian Jewish director collaborator Rudolf Meinert (1882-1945) on the 1914 version, who died in a concentration camp.
Despite never being shown in Poland although a Polish film collector acquired a 35mm nitrate print with Czech subtitles, one of the sources for reconstruction, the film also never received Polish or English language release. Nor did Italy and France see it, only Scandinavian countries. Obviously industrial turmoil, due to the changeover to sound, must have affected potential distribution of a film that had an international cast with an American Sherlock Holmes (Carlyle Blackwell), Russian Dr. Watson, German villain (Fritz Rasp), Italian hero-in-distress, Austrian heroine, Czech Dr. Mortimer, British Mrs. Barrymore, and Polish femme fatale. By 1919, Blackwell’s (1884-1955) Hollywood screen career was in decline, so his casting is reminiscent of those 50s British films attempting American distribution by casting former stars for box office reasons. Significantly, later films had their own international connections with Christopher Lee (1922-2015) who played Sir Henry Baskerville in the 1959 Hammer production and played Holmes himself in a German version directed by Terence Fisher, Sherlock Holmes and The Deadly Necklace (1962).
As with previous releases, Flicker Alley provides both DVD and Blu-ray copies but this time it has an additional extra on the Blu-ray that those of us still using standard DVD only machines need not be all that concerned about. This extra is the 1914 adaption scripted by Richard Oswald, based on a 1907 play he co-wrote, directed by Rudolf Meinert which must be the worst adaptation ever made. It definitely supports the attitudes of pioneers such as Lotte Eisner and Siegfried Kracauer concerning the value of 99% of Wilhelmine Cinema as artistically irrelevant in much the same way as French critics and others dismissed British Cinema. While allowing for the fact that discoveries might overturn this verdict in the future, this 1914 version is not one of them. Featuring the tamest Hound of the Baskervilles in cinematic history seen licking the head of its quarry Sir Charles Baskerville after his demise like a faithful pooch trying to wake up his master from an afternoon snooze, the film takes 30 minutes for Holmes to appear after featuring the villainous Stapleton whose character is immediately apparent after a few seconds. He has little physical resemblance to his Doyle original. This version does not take necessary dramatic license, but plays “blue murder” (I do not refer to the restored tinting here!) with the plot even anticipating and “out-Sleuthing” Sleuth but with the added element of both hero and villain taking on disguises by exchanging identities. Both 1914 and 1929 versions have the villain’s eyes seen through a prop: Napoleon’s head in the 1914 version and a suit of armor in the second that is the only remnant of Oswald’s authorship connecting both versions. However, I hope that Flicker Alley does not reproduce the practices of other companies that have extras on Blu-ray but not on the standard DVD as a forced economic inventive to continue a format that may eventually end up as the DVD version of Betamax.
- For an English language article on his many appearances, see Henning Harmmssen (translated by Elisabeth Cowie), “A Tribute to Fritz Rasp.” Focus on Film 8 (1971): 47-55.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the English Department, southern Illinois University at Carbondale as well as a Contributing Editor to Film international.