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When farmer Rog dies, his son Peter stays, but Johannes can not be satisfied with such a condition (and servant Maria's love) and finds a job as old Count Rudenberg's secretary. His ambition leads him to charm Gerda, the Count's unique daughter. But when he discovers that Count's second wife Helga will soon inherit a field that only he knows his underground is full with petroleum, he changes his allegiance... Greed and death. Written by
This movie was considered lost for a long time. In 1978 an almost complete print was found in the estate of an Italian priest who had organised screenings in mental hospitals. See also The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). See more »
A tale of familial jealousy, greed, and suffering, directed by a master
If Ingmar Bergman had been an adult in 1922 directing silent dramas in Germany, DER BRENNENDE ACKER (known as "Burning Soil" in the U.S.) is likely the sort of thing he would have produced. The themes of family rivalry and filial guilt are similar to the motifs Bergman would explore decades later, while the somber atmosphere and bleak landscapes are so Bergman-like I wonder whether the young Ingmar might have seen it while still at a young and impressionable age. As it happens, the director of this film was the legendary F.W. Murnau, whose own cinematic apprenticeship was reaching its conclusion; he worked on this project virtually back-to-back with NOSFERATU, the first of a handful of works that would earn him a reputation as one of the great filmmakers of his era. Some may find it difficult to appreciate this comparatively conventional effort in light of Murnau's later achievements, but patient viewers with a taste for sophisticated silent drama will likely find this film interesting and rewarding.
DER BRENNENDE ACKER presents us with two households: that of the wealthy Count Josef Emmanuel of Rudenberg, his daughter Gerda, and his much-younger second wife, Helga; and the Rogs, a fairly prosperous farm family who live nearby. As the story begins the elderly Rog patriarch is dying, attended by his hard-working son Peter. Meanwhile, the younger and more worldly son Johannes rushes home but arrives too late to bid his father goodbye. At the Count's castle we hear the story of the strange-looking structure on his property which stands on barren land known as the Devil's Field. It seems that an ancestor of the Count's believed the land held a treasure and sent his serfs down a shaft to investigate, but one of their torches set off an explosion. The Chapel of Atonement was built on the spot where the men were killed. The present Count Rudenberg, who, like the Rog patriarch, is also dying, is obsessed with the subject and learns that the land sits on an untapped oil field worth a fortune. As so often happens, this wealth bears a curse and brings only misery to all who come into contact with it.
Tension mounts between Peter and Johannes; the latter says he's acquired "worldly tastes" and has no interest in farming. Through the influence of the Count's attractive daughter Gerda he becomes her father's secretary. Johannes and Gerda seem to be on the verge of an affair, but when he learns that the Devil's Field is worth millions and that it will be inherited by the Count's wife Helga, he turns his attention to her. When she is widowed, he marries her.
More melodramatic twists in the plot lead to bitter family conflict, jealousy, and, ultimately, to an oil well fire at the Devil's Field (thus "Burning Soil"). Based on the plot synopsis it probably goes without saying that this borders on soap opera, but it's not the story or the histrionics that make it intriguing. Actually, where the acting is concerned the film is quite low-key for its day (aside from an unfortunate moment when Stella Arbenina, who plays Helga, indicates a state of high emotion by flinging herself to the ground). No, it's something harder to define that kept me watching with keen interest: a sustained mood of wintry melancholy, perked by a number of understated but impressive directorial touches. There's business involving a document torn into little pieces that is poetic. When Murnau was at his peak, in such films as FAUST and SUNRISE, he would stage his effects on a much grander scale, but here he manages to create a beautiful moment with a few torn pieces of paper. And while some viewers may be disappointed to find no supernatural element in a work produced almost concurrently with NOSFERATU, several scenes in the Count's gloomy castle have a uniquely eerie quality. When an old servant tells the tale of the Devil's Field to the younger maids the lighting gives the scene a ghostly aura, nicely augmented when we see the Count in his study, reading about the tragedy at that same moment. The conflict between the Rog brothers is more prosaic and, yes, somewhat "soapy," but the actors are good and their scenes are never boring. The ending feels a bit pat but dramatically necessary after all the high emotion of the fiery climax.
In short, DER BRENNENDE ACKER is a lesser but decidedly worthwhile drama by one of the silent screen's greatest directors. In this early work Murnau shows deftness in laying out a fairly complicated story with several key characters, skill in drawing subtle performances from his actors, and real artistry in creating and maintaining an atmosphere of foreboding that builds to a satisfying resolution.
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