Der Hund von Baskerville/The Hound of the Baskervilles (1914)

‘The Castle will explode in 20 seconds.’

After the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, his fortune and titles pass to distant relative, Henry. However, the legendary ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ was seen in the area before the tragedy, and Henry soon finds himself marked for death…

This first instalment of a German seven-film series was the brainchild of successful producer Jules Greenbaum. In this opening chapter, Alwin Neuß plays the Sherlock Holmes role in a very loose adaptation of Conan Doyle’s original work by writer Richard Oswald and director Rudolf Meinert.

Newspaper reports of the death of Sir Charles Baskerville reach his distant relative Henry (Erwin Fichtner) in New York. A cable swiftly follows, but a death threat supplements the request to return to the land of his ancestors. Undeterred, Fichtner takes up the title and finds his new life very pleasant, mainly thanks to new neighbour Laura Lyons (Hanni Weisse). However, others aren’t so welcoming, particularly the villainous Stapleton (Friedrich Kühne), who caused Sir Charles’ death and is eager for Fichtner to follow in his footsteps.

After more anonymous threats, Fichtner encounters a monstrous hound when out riding. He decides he needs help and cables the famous detective Sherlock Holmes (Neuß). However, with the help of servant Barrymore (Andreas Van Horn), who is acting as a confederate, Kühne intercepts the telegram. Disguising himself as the Great Detective, he fools Fichtner and pretends to investigate the case. Meanwhile, the real Holmes reads a report of his apparent involvement in the newspaper and decides to take a hand.

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was a global phenomenon by the early 20th Century and had proved particularly popular in Germany. With the similar runaway success of William Gillette’s stage adaptation, theatrical producers flocked to adapt the stories, with 1901’s ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ a particular target. By 1907, writer Richard Oswald had a version of the story before paying customers, but the production by writer-director Ferdinand Bonn proved far more popular. When studio mogul Greenbaum began assembling a team to deliver a screen version of the tale, he hired both men. Bonn appeared in ‘Sherlock Holmes contra Dr Mors’ (1914), playing both the detective and his new arch-enemy, from a script by Oswald. But it seems that only the writer went on to wrestle with the Hound.

The liberties Oswald takes with Doyle’s text are considerable, to say the least. The most curious is the retention of an element of Bonn’s play: relocating the action to the highlands of Scotland and transforming Baskerville Hall into a castle. It’s unconfirmed, but these may have been remnants of Bonn’s early participation in the project. Oswald certainly used some of his own theatrical version, including a scene where Kühne plants a bomb in the castle, which Neuß defuses with a single shot after taking a few moments to light a casual cigarette. Elsewhere, the most obvious departure is to remove most of the mystery in the first ten minutes. The reading of Sir Charles’ will reveals that he left his entire estate to Henry to stop ‘greedy nephew Roger’ getting his hands on it (no foreshadowing there, then). Shortly afterwards, the audience discovers that the scowling Kühne is the bad guy and that the Hound is simply a large dog he keeps hidden.

From there, the plot resembles more of an old-fashioned melodrama than anything else. It’s an unusual idea to have Kühne impersonate Holmes, but it does keep the real detective offscreen for nearly the entire first half of the film. Of course, Holmes is absent for a large stretch of the original novel, but at least there, Doyle gave us Watson instead. However, Oswald’s script restricts the good doctor to just one scene, a brief chat with Holmes before the detective heads for Scotland. It’s certainly a different approach, but it’s not entirely successful. Most crucially, perhaps, the film has no place for deductive reasoning or any real detective work. Neuß’s Holmes is a heroic figure, of course, but he comes across as more adventurer than sleuth, reacting to Kühne’s machinations with brawn and intuition rather than the scientific method.

Unsurprisingly, the film falls at the same hurdle as many adaptations of the tale: realising the Hound. Apparently, one contemporary source described director Meinert’s canine as ‘a monstrous Great Dane with flaming eyes and fire emerging from its mouth.’ Great Dane, it may have been, but there’s a distinct absence of hellfire and brimstone. Perhaps that’s why Kühne’s schemes move swiftly in other directions. The friendly, lolloping canine is more likely to elicit sighs of sympathy than screams of terror. It also made commercial sense to replace this unusual method of murder with more familiar and popular tropes, such as bombs, suits of armour and secret passages. Rather helpfully, Kühne puts everything down in a journal because it’s always a good idea to keep a written record of your murders, call it ‘A Secret Diary’ and hide it down the back of the sofa.

Some notable names took part behind the camera, with some early work by legendary German cinematographer Karl Freund. In the following decade, he collaborated with famous filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, F W Murnau and Paul Wegener, bringing his skill and invention to classics like ‘The Golem/Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam’ (1920), ‘The Last Laugh/Der letzte Mann’ (1924) and ‘Metropolis’ (1926). Moving to Hollywood in 1929, he photographed Tod Browning’s ‘Dracula’ (1931) and Robert Florey’s ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1932), both with Bela Lugosi, as well as directing Karloff in ‘The Mummy’ (1932) and Peter Lorre in ‘Mad Love’ (1935). A few years after this film, set designer Hermann Warm created the iconic twisted backdrops of Robert Wiene’s ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari/Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari’ (1920), a project which also involved Meinhert as an uncredited producer.

Greenbaum was not finished with the Great Detective, though, not by any stretch of the imagination. Later that year, he reassembled the principal cast, Meinert and Oswald, for the sequel ‘Das Einsame Haus/The Isolated House’ (1914), apparently to that date the most expensive German film ever made. The following year brought the third and fourth instalments, ‘Das Unheimliche Zimmer/The Uncanny Room’ (1915) and prequel ‘Die Sage vom Hund von Baskerville/The Saga of the Hound of the Baskervilles’ (1915), both written and directed by Oswald. However, Greenbaum had broken away from his former business partners, who took him to court and had the films blocked from release. Instead, they offered their own entry in the series, ‘Der Hund von Baskerville: Das Dunkle Schloss/The Dark Castle’ (1915), although it seems that Holmes was replaced by another detective named Braun.

After the end of World War One, Greenbaum managed to get his third and fourth episodes out to theatres, but public response was muted. Despite that, he ploughed on with the sixth and seventh entries, ‘Das Sanatorium Macdonald/Macdonald’s Sanatorium’ (1920) and ‘Das Haus Ohne Fenster/The House Without Windows’ (1920). Both these last episodes starred Fichtner as Sir Henry, and the sixth featured Weisse again, billed as Lady Baskerville. By this time, Oswald was no longer involved, having struck out on his own with films such as ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray/Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray’ (1917), ‘Unheim Liche Geschichten/Eerie Tales/Uncanny Tales’ (1919) and ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ (1919). Sadly, it seems that only the first of Greenbaum’s ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ cycle has survived, but, given the plot details that remain of the others, it does seem that it was the most faithful adaptation of the lot.

Conan Doyle purists will likely hate it, and at times it bears little resemblance to the Sherlock Holmes we know today. However, this revisionist take is interesting, if hardly essential.


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