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Arts & Culture

Audrey Kupferberg: Der Hund Von Baskerville

There is value to the rediscovery of any silent film that was thought lost for decades.  After all, fewer than half of all silent films have survived.  When the rediscovered film is the last silent film ever made featuring Sherlock Holmes, there is particular reason to celebrate.  Recently, extremely rare materials on the 1929 German feature film, Der Hund von Baskerville, were located.  A Czech-language 35mm distribution print was identified in a Warsaw film archive, and a 9.5mm Pathex abridgement originally for the amateur market was found in a private collection.  With these prints, Der Hund von Baskerville was able to be restored by the Polish archive, preservationists Rob Byrne and Russell Merritt, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and Flicker Alley. Just a few weeks ago, Flicker Alley released the title with incredible bonus features on Blu-ray and DVD.

In 1929, Germany was still in its milestone years of expressionist filmmaking.  Film industries from around the world were looking towards Berlin for inspiration.  These were the pre-Hitler years when creativity was free-flowing, so it is no surprise that Der Hund von Baskerville, directed by the respected filmmaker Richard Oswald, based on a German stage play of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, boasts a prized, international cast of players. 

The most surprising casting for me is American movie idol Carlyle Blackwell as Sherlock Holmes.  Handsome, distinguished, and pleasantly charming, Blackwell was one of the leading lights of the U.S. silent film industry throughout the teens and twenties. When sound came in, he made one talkie and then retired.  As Holmes, Blackwell is more sociable than others who have had the esteemed role.  His character is introduced as “genial” which isn’t a word I would choose for many interpretations of Holmes.  

I am not the first to point out that the story of The Hound of the Baskervilles is the most fitting of all Holmes tales for production in Germany in 1929.  It was their heyday for presenting horror and terror in an artful manner.  Der Hund von Baskerville utilizes all of the German expressionist cinematic tools to create an atmosphere that threatens and provokes viewers to a high emotional response.  Gloomy Gothic sets.  Expressionist lighting.  Silhouettes. Uncomfortably tight close-ups.  A birds-eye view establishing shot.  Tracking shots.  Subjective camera.  After all, 1929 is the last year and the highest level of development of silent film production.

What may be a familiar story to most Sherlock Holmes fans takes on a singular style of excitement in this very old movie.  With a new musical track and a polished restoration, the Devonshire moors are menacing, and the Baskerville family is in grave danger.  It is Holmes and Dr. Watson to the rescue!   After ninety years, Der Hund von Baskerville retains a sinister air that results in an exhilarating experience for most contemporary Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts.   

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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