Fear (Furcht) 1917

Director: Robert Wiene
"The terrible Buddha priests want their revenge. . . There is no escape from their secret power!"
Horror legend Conrad Veidt's earliest surviving film. Robert (Caligari) Wiene directs the story of a Count who steals a precious Indian idol without reckoning on the consequences . . . FEAR, paranoia and a spectral Priest...

Count Greven returns to Osterna Castle after an absence of two years. His servants are shocked to find him fearful and withdrawn, ordering the castle gates bolted shut and refusing all visitors. His only solace seems to be an idol of the Buddha which he locks away from view.  Greven later confesses that he has stolen the idol from the Indian temple of Djaba after hearing of its beauty and mystical healing qualities. Since then he has been tormented by guilt and lives in fear of reprisal from the vengeful Indian priests.

That night, the High Priest appears in the castle grounds. Greven tries to shoot him, but the bullets have no effect. He begs the priest to take his life and end his suffering. The priest refuses, giving Greven seven years to live. Greven wakes suddenly in his bed, thinking the encounter was just a dream - until he sees a note pinned to the base of the idol: "Do not forget... today seven years hence!"

Greven loses himself in wild parties and gambling, until the townsfolk's disdain and his own waning enthusiasm lead him elsewhere. Great scientific discoveries are made, and then casually destroyed with a cry of, "To something new!". He finds a lover, from whom he cannot bear to be parted, but the priest's words still prey on his mind. One night he throws the idol in a lake, only to have it reappear in it's cabinet the next morning. Even his devoted lover cannot console him as the day of reckoning draws closer and closer...

Spirit photography: a spectral Conrad Veidt
comes to reclaim the stolen idol 
Robert Wiene's reputation as a director rests almost entirely on the angular painted shoulders of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Most critics tend to regard that film's success as something of a fluke, citing Wiene's uneven body of work as evidence. The relatively little-known Fear came early in a career which began with Die Waffen Der Jugend in 1913 and ended midway through the filming of spy thriller Ultimatum twenty-five years later. While nowhere near as distinguished a film as Caligari (but then, how many are?), Fear shows us a competent director capable of sustaining an uncanny atmosphere using only the simplest of plots.

Wiene's cast helps Fear rise above the ordinary. Bruno Decarli as the paranoiac Graf Greven throws himself around the scenery with wild abandon, but his manic style works well enough in this context. There's a kind of brooding stillness to the rest of the film, enhanced by the unobtrusive direction and by the restrained manner of Decarli's fellow players. The resulting tension between Greven and his surroundings, whether accidental or not, effectively underlines his psychological isolation as his foretold death looms up on him.

Also looming is Conrad Veidt as the cadaverous Indian priest, in his first of several films with Wiene. Veidt, like so many actors, had been lured away from the theatre by the film industry's financial rewards, making his first film Der Spion (The Spy) shortly after his military discharge in 1916. In Fear, he only appears on screen for a matter of minutes, though this is more than enough for his strikingly gaunt looks and imposing presence to put an indelible stamp on the film. Thanks to Veidt, simple double-exposure shots of  the spectral priest walking through the castle's hallways look far more creepy than they ought to. Similarly sinister roles in following years earned him the epithet "The Demonic Veidt" even before his international breakthrough with Caligari.

Count Greven's lover Mechthildis Thein had featured in the Frankenstein-inspired 1916 serial Homonculus, later taking further roles alongside Fear co-stars Veidt and Bernhard Goetzke. Goetzke distinguished himself portraying Death in Fritz Lang's Der Mude Tod (a.k.a. Destiny) in 1924, but later tarnished his reputation by participating in the anti-semitic Nazi propaganda film Jud Suss in 1940. Production company Messter-Film was absorbed into conglomerate UFA not long after the completion of Fear, though founder Oskar Messter continued to distribute films under his own name until the mid-twenties.

End Credits:
Bruno Decarli (Graf Greven), Conrad Veidt (Indian Priest), Bernhard Goetzke (Manservant), Mechthildis Thein (Greven's Lover), Hermann Picha (Minister).
Screenplay: Robert Wiene, Art Direction: Ludwig Kamer, Producer: Oskar Messter
Messter-Film, Germany
Running time 55 mins.

No official release, though copies can be bought in North America through Reichskino.

Some information taken from "Conrad Veidt On Screen" by John T. Soister and Pat Wilks Battle.

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