Home Video Hovel: Der Hund von Baskerville, by David Bax
Sherlock Holmes is so thoroughly English that he remains so on film even in movies produced in other countries. 1929’s German Der Hund von Baskerville, the final silent film to feature Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved character, maintains the famous sleuth’s nationality and the story’s English countryside setting. Director Richard Oswald’s film is a faithful adaptation (with the exception of this version of Watson, played by George Seroff, being something of a smug dick) but this particular Holmes tale may have been especially well-suited to the German cinema of the time.
Holmes (Carlyle Blackwell) and Watson are called to a rich estate where members of the Baskerville family seem to be dying off. The killings are attributed, by those superstitiously inclined, to a spectral demon dog that is said to have roamed the Baskervilles’ lands for generations, the lingering result of some curse or other. Holmes doesn’t believe in no ghost dogs but it takes several days living in the mansion along with the remaining Baskerville, Henry (Livio Pavanelli), a secretive butler (Valy Arnheim) and his secretive wife (Alma Taylor), an eccentric naturalist neighbor (Fritz Rasp) and rumors of an escaped homicidal lunatic on the loose before he can solve the case.
From a technical standpoint, Der Hund von Baskervilles is unassailable. It’s not just that it’s competently made (not to mention competently restored; more on that later). It also suggests a laudable confidence on Oswald’s part. By 1929, insert shots were no longer new to cinema but the almost diagrammatic way Oswald uses them to demonstrate and relay Holmes’ brilliant deductions as they are happening feels like a precursor to the way mysteries are uncovered in movies even today.
What’s most important about The Hound of the Baskervilles is that it’s one of the rare Holmes tales, and the only novel, that could rightly be described as horror. Oswald, thankfully, understands that and, as a result, Der Hund von Baskerville could be placed more comfortably in that genre, even, than the mystery one. Over a decade of German expressionist cinema meant that the craftsmen involved possessed the expertise to properly capture that shadowy, gothic black and white from which the secrets emerge. Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray, it should be noted, has no tinting; presumably this is how the film was always displayed. Perhaps the creepiest moment comes when Watson is awakened by a noise in the night and the camera slowly pushes in on him as he sits up in bed. Carl Theodor Dreyer would go on to use the same technique in Vampyr in 1932 but, once again, it feels remarkably similar to the kinds of filmmaking we see in horror movies today, subtly suggesting the movement of an unseen entity. Der Hund von Baskerville is just as important to the horror canon as it is to the Holmes one.
Long thought to be lost, Der Hund von Baskerville has been restored by Filmoteka Narodowa and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. There are reels yet missing but those sections are covered by still photos and text describing the action. Other shots are clearly missing frames and the intertitles have been recreated completely. But what’s not there isn’t as important as what is, a remarkably clear picture with marvelous light density and contrast that sells the spookiness of the mansion and the moors. There’s also a lovely new score by Günter Buchwald, Frank Bockius and Sascha Jacobsen.
Special features include an entire other movie! 1914’s Der Hund von Baskerville is also partially directed by Oswald. Other features include a featurette on the source novel and its legacy, a featurette on the restoration and an essay by film historian Russell Merritt.