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The Chronicles of the Gray House (1925)

Zur Chronik von Grieshuus (original title)
Hinrich, the son of a feudal German landowner, falls in love with the beautiful daughter of one of his father's serfs despite opposition from both families. But when he actually offers ... See full summary »

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Cast

Credited cast:
Arthur Kraußneck ...
...
Junker Hinrich
Rudolf Forster ...
Junker Detlef
Gertrude Welcker ...
Gesine (Gräfinwitwe)
Rudolf Rittner ...
Owe Heiken
...
Bärbe
...
Matte
Hans Peter Peterhans ...
Enzio
Christian Bummerstaedt ...
Christoph (as Christian Bummerstedt)
Ernst Gronau
Josef Peterhans ...
Der Bereiter
Hermann Leffler
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Jahn Christen ...
Christof
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Storyline

Hinrich, the son of a feudal German landowner, falls in love with the beautiful daughter of one of his father's serfs despite opposition from both families. But when he actually offers marriage to her, this is going too far. The return of his brother Detlev, with an unscrupulous aristocratic bride of his own and a rival claim to their father's estates, proves to be the trigger for tragedy. Written by Igenlode Wordsmith

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Drama

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25 October 1925 (Finland)  »

Also Known As:

The Chronicles of the Gray House  »

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Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
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Featured in Das Erbe der Nibelungen (2011) See more »

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User Reviews

 
Rediscovered classic
17 November 2005 | by (England) – See all my reviews

It's not very often that one gets the chance to attend the international premiere of a film first made some eighty years previously! But while "The Sentimental Bloke" and "Beyond the Rocks", the other two silent classics of the 2005 London Film festival, had both received well-publicised screenings abroad, we were given to understand that we were the first ever audience to glimpse the restored "Chronicles of the Grey House", a long-since-forgotten German prestige production from the 1920s. In common with, I suspect, most of the rest of the packed auditorium, I knew nothing whatsoever about what we might expect from the picture: so was it worth the rediscovery?

To my great satisfaction I can report that the answer is 'Yes' -- this is no "Beyond the Rocks", mythologised by the mere fact of its loss, but a film worthy of taking its place in the canon of German silents; the director's early death was a loss to posterity. It is beautifully filmed, expressively acted and distinctive in its extensive use of location photography. The setting, in what seems to be a feudal-era German state, is alien to an English audience, and I can't answer for the authenticity of the costumes and customs shown; but they looked very convincing!

The plot is the stuff of melodrama, almost of archetype: the young lord who falls in love with a beautiful low-born maid, the two noble brothers at odds with one another, the contested will, the blasted heath and the house brought to ruin, as we see in the opening shots. But it's not as inevitably tragic as that introductory scene makes it seem -- indeed, this was a question I found others too discussing with puzzlement after the film. With a flashback structure, a modern audience, at least, assumes that at some point by the end of the film the action will have reached the moment in time at which we started: "Chronicles of the Grey House" doesn't do this, and the result is rather disconcerting, leaving the viewer hanging, as it were. We are never actually shown how the 'present-day' situation comes about, and we never learn the identity of the traveller upon the heath, although we can hazard a guess. I suspect the intended audience were expected to be rather more familiar with Theodor Storm's original story...

The film encompasses a moving romance, played with great appeal by the attractive young leads, Paul Hartmann and Lil Dagover, some rousing action scenes in which Hartmann shows to conviction, light touches of humour, tragedy in the style of high drama, and a great sensitivity to the moods of the countryside. The landscape ranges from dark and brooding to idyllic in the shifting days and seasons, reflecting the tone of every scene and its characters' perceptions much as background music would be used today. The characters are all three-dimensional, neither wholly good nor bad but merely human in their weaknesses -- with the possible exception of Junker Detlef's ambitious aristocratic wife! Lil Dagover, in the part of the maiden Barbara, particularly impressed me with the sensitivity of her performance as well as her beauty, and the child who plays Rolf showed astonishing talent for his age.

I did feel that the beginning and the end, unfortunately, were probably the weakest parts. The opening scene is quite simply creaky in its melodrama, somewhat reminiscent of the introduction to a tongue-in-cheek horror, while the actions of the characters at the end owe more to archetype and less to individuality -- we are given fewer glimpses into motivation and the plot starts to feel a bit rushed. It all gets a bit far-fetched and Wagnerian and we lose track of the human side... or at least I did.

My only criticism of the restoration itself, however -- the print quality is so good you don't even think about it -- would be the translation used for the subtitling. My German isn't very good, and the original intertitles are retained in their heavy pre-war Gothic typeface, making them a challenge to read, but even from what I could make out I would say that in places the English version is actively misleading. The decision to render 'Junker', a minor aristocratic title, as the adjective 'young', leads to a surreal exchange where a peasant addresses the landowner's son patronisingly as 'young man' whilst in the original dialogue he is emphasising Junker Hinrich's feudal responsibilities: 'young Master' might have corresponded more closely to the social equivalent. And I have a strong suspicion that a significant story element has been obscured by another choice in translation: my scanty knowledge of medieval law suggests that the reason why Hinrich's father is so adamantly opposed to his marriage and the justification used by Detlef to set aside the claims of his brother's family to the estate are that Bärbe and her father are not merely peasants but *serfs* -- legally unfree -- and that any child Hinrich fathers upon such a wife will be born into serfdom in turn and unable to inherit. If I'm right, then if only the translator had been familiar with this one word, a good deal of otherwise unexplained confusion could have been cleared up.

Be that as it may, the film is definitely worth seeing, not only for its good looks and technical accomplishment but simply as historical fiction with a distinctively Teutonic slant. It shows its age a little, but this is quality cinema.


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