In her book on pioneering German maestro F.W. Murnau, Lotte Eisner declared that no Teutonic filmmaker could display the light spirit necessary for classic comedy. It’s a sweepingly reductive comment (how quickly Herr Lubitsch is forgotten), but one that haunts The Finances of the Grand Duke as surely as vampires and ghosts haunt Murnau’s other films. Things look grim in the imaginary nation of Abacco: The blithe Grand Duke (Harry Liedtke) is down to his last coins, and a devious creditor (Guido Herzfeld) seems poised to take over the kingdom and turn it into a collective sulfur mine. Hope comes in the form of a pretty runaway (Mady Christians) who turns out to be the Russian princess, and a sly cat burglar (Alfred Abel) who slinks in and out of the intrigue. For a breezy comedy, this is a remarkably convoluted film: Murnau would do away with intertitles in The Last Laugh later that year, but here the action is repeatedly brought to a halt by lengthy title cards, newspapers, and missives that spell out the plot’s assorted disguises and double-crosses. There’s one extended sequence midway through the film, detailing the princess’s evasion of her brother with the help of Abel’s dapper rogue, that vibrates with the bustle of the city of night and nervy camera movements; it could have easily been edited out of the whole and released as a luminous short. Unfortunately, the rest of the film, which at times plays like a tepidly farcical version of a Feuillade serial, is of interest mainly for its peculiar combination of immaculate form and clumsy content. All the same, it should be seen by Murnau completists, and by anyone who’s ever wondered what Max Schreck looks like out of his Nosferatu makeup.
Warmly tinted and liltingly scored, this is a particularly fetching transfer, particularly considering the film’s rather obscure status.
Film historian David Kalat's commentary is the only extra, though, in its modest way, it is an exemplary one: Meticulous without being stodgy, alert to the film's effects without overlooking its flaws, and able to situate themes and images within Murnau's oeuvre as well as Weimar Germany.
A tepidly farcical curio for Murnau completists.