The critic Chris Fujiwara once described Nicholas Ray’s Wind Across the Everglades (1958) as a “litmus test” of the auteur theory.1 Fujiwara intended the term to describe the fate of that film, mutilated in the edit by producers and stuffed with additional footage not originally planned or shot by Ray, but it can equally be used to describe those films that seem to break rank with the images we most associate with certain filmmakers. Die Finanzen des Großherzogs (The Grand Duke’s Finances, 1924) may not be the least-known of F.W. Murnau’s surviving work (that honor would probably go to Der brennende Acker (The Burning Soil, 1922), for a long time thought to be lost), but it is the one that conforms the least to the ideas we have of him. One could therefore not be faulted if the genre and use of exotic location photography – shot in bright daylight by one of Murnau’s regular collaborators, Karl Freund, in the same year as their more technically impressive Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924) – led them to mistake it at first glance for one of the French adventure films popular at the time, such as Louis Feuillade’s Tih-Minh (1918) and Parisette (1921), rather than a film by one of the directors most closely associated with German Expressionism and its curved, shadowy studio interiors. Lotte Eisner, Murnau’s biographer, tells us he didn’t like to discuss the film.2 Neither, it seems, do many of his later admirers, who often leave it out of discussion altogether.

From the outline of the scenario, it’s not difficult to imagine what might have at least initially attracted Murnau to the project. Somewhere off the Mediterranean coast, the small kingdom of Abacco is nearing bankruptcy. The young duke (Harry Liedtke), the last of the royal line, cares little for money: we’re introduced to him by the seaside, tossing coins into the ocean for young swimmers to chase after. The debt collector arrives, and during his stay is given by mistake a promissory note meant for the duke from a wealthy Russian princess offering her fortune in exchange for marriage. (Though aware of his desperate financial condition, she writes, she was won over by his reputation for benevolence toward his subjects.) At the same time, another man arrives, offering to buy the island in order to exploit its sulfur deposits – an offer the duke refuses out of concern for how the drilling would ruin the island’s natural beauty. Murnau’s hero is an idealist, if not a little immature; unlike many of the others, however, the duke is ambitious and adventurous, a far cry from the foolish, weak-willed men who lead Tartuffe (1925) and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). 

But above all, the duke represents the cause of greatest interest to Murnau: he is a debtor. Indeed, is there any artist in the 20th century with a more acute sense for debt as the source for dramatic material, who does more to show the misery of debtors and the inhuman cruelty of creditors, whether the debt in question is strictly financial (Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens, 1922; The Last Laugh; Tabu, 1931), moral (Tartuffe), or something even more cosmic in scope (Faust, 1926)? Part of the endurance of Murnau’s films is that he sees in the banality of the contract a conflict of catastrophic, nearly metaphysical proportions. Here, however, the tone is more muted and frivolous; the script, written by the German screenwriter Thea von Harbou from a novel by the Swedish author Frank Heller, never develops the supernatural dimension that often plays as a foil to more grounded, naturalist drama as in Murnau’s more famous films. Most uncanny are the gang of hunchbacked thugs hired to stage a coup on the island in the duke’s absence, a group which includes a character played by Max Schreck (listed in the credits as “the sinister one”), most famous for his role as the vampire Count Orlok in Nosferatu.

Murnau’s reputation is interesting in that he is perhaps the only filmmaker of his stature and with as much prominence in the classical film canon who never lived to make a sound film. (Even Griffith managed two.) Compared with the greatest of his German peers – Fritz Lang, G.W. Pabst, and possibly also Robert Wiene – he is something of an anomaly. If there is overlap in their regard toward modern society, their concern took them in opposite directions. Lang’s paranoia found refuge in a depiction of a society more and more surveilled, in which technology stands more and more in triumph over human weakness. Murnau retreated from technology altogether. The most Romantic of all German filmmakers, his films stand out from the rest for how much they are involved with nature. His earliest surviving feature, and earliest surviving masterpiece, Der Gang in die Nacht (Journey into the Night, 1921), stands in such stark contrast to the impression left by Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920) for its use of natural landscape, despite having in common a haunting performance by Conrad Veidt as a wandering somnambulist. So it is as well with The Grand Duke’s Finances: though its tone (it is a comedy) and its genre (it is an adventure film) are so distinctly different from what silent German cinema is often thought to be (and often was), it only serves to reinforce Murnau’s uniqueness as a director. Like one of his own heroes, he was always most content going his own way.

Die Finanzen des Großherzogs (The Grand Duke’s Finances, 1924 Germany 120 mins)

Prod. Co: UFA Prod: Erich Pommer Dir: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Scr: Thea von Harbou, adapted from Frank Heller’s novel by the same name Phot: Karl Freund, Franz Planer Art dir: Erich Czerwonski

Cast: Mady Christians, Harry Liedtke, Robert Scholtz, Alfred Abel, Adolphe Engers, Hermann Vallentin, Julius Falkenstein, Max Schreck, Georg August, Walter Rilla, Ilka Grüning


  1. Chris Fujiwara, “Wind Across the Everglades,” TCM, July 6, 2011 https://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/95937/wind-across-the-everglades#articles-reviews?articleId=430511
  2. Eisner’s writing on Murnau is split between her path-breaking L’ecran demoniaque (1952; translated into English as The Haunted Screen, 1955), covering his major Expressionist films, and a separate monograph covering the remainder. Her discussion of The Grand Duke’s Finances can be found in the latter volume. See Eisner, Murnau (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 147-153.

About The Author

Jonathan Mackris is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studies film. His current research compares 20th century theories of film, with a particular emphasis on French film criticism.

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