I loved Das Geheimschloß (The Secret Castle) aka Miss Clever contra de „Zwarte Hand” (Miss Clever versus the ‘Black Hand’) when I saw it at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone a couple of years ago – a gem out of nowhere. A few months ago it was finally made available online at the European Film Gateway, and it was a real pleasure to watch it again.
The story’s protagonist is mistress of disguise, detective Miss Clever (Ellen Jensen-Eck), who is called in to investigate the situation when a banker goes missing and his father is blackmailed by the kidnappers.
Ellen Jensen-Eck began her acting career in the Aarhus Theatre of Denmark, and had already appeared in several films prior to Das Geheimschloß (I detail her filmography below). In the role of Miss Clever, Jensen-Eck gets to don multiple disguises, including as a secretary, a little girl, a vamp, and a raggedy old women.
Jensen-Eck is charming. She’s clearly having fun with the role, and it’s a nicely naturalistic performance – none of the excess people often associate with early cinema (perhaps Jensen-Eck took a leaf out of the book of her countrywoman Asta Nielsen). And Miss Clever is a really great character – no damsel in distress, but simply a problem-solver with a lot of style. It’s refreshing, especially in light of the virgin/vamp dichotomy one sees in quite a few films of this period. In fact, a female character that is simultaneously resourceful, attractive, competent, and charismatic is even refreshing today, let alone in 1914.
“Ugh. This guy.”
The other main appeal of the film is how well-structured it is. The plot is excellently constructed and well-paced – there really isn’t any ‘fat’ to trim here. From a formal perspective the camerawork is nothing special, but it’s well done and there’s a nice mixture of framings; also, the editing allows the story to flow smoothly. This film came out a year before Les Vampires (the only crime serial I have really delved into), but it’s light-years ahead of it in this regard. I do appreciate Les Vampires, but the satisfying economy of Das Geheimschloß only serves to highlight how clunky the former can be.
I won’t recount the whole plot, but I will present one of my favourite scenes (spoiler warning!) At a chic hotel, the members of the Black Hand are meeting:
Undoubtedly they are classy criminals, carrying out their plotting and scheming in an elegant meeting room tastefully decorated with pseudo-Grecian sculptures. But wait –
The statue is Miss Clever! She ‘comes alive’, breaks the lightswitch, and once the men leave the now-dark room to find the problem, she makes her getaway, having got the information she came for.
General information about the film is rather lacking. Apollo-Film-GmbH, Das Geheimschloß‘s production company, operated for several years and produced 27 films, but director of Das Geheimschloß is unknown, as indeed are any of the cast and crew besides Jensen-Eck.
The following has been established: with Das Geheimschloß, Apollo-Film apparently hoped to launch a detective serial based on the novel idea of a female detective. One imagines they were inspired by the success of Protéa (FR), the first installment of which was released in 1913. Das Geheimschloß was something of a prestige production for Apollo-Film, boasting high production values and fancy advertising. Unfortunately, the film was doomed upon release; in the Pordenone 2012 catalogue, David Robinson and Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi write that it instantly became subject to censorship (and was later banned), Miss Clever’s costume changes being seen as too suggestive. Sadly but predictably, no further installments were made.
Das Geheimschloß survived in the collection of EYE Film Instituut Nederland; it is the only known print of this film. Although it was exhibited very successfully by Jean Desmet for several years, he sold on the print, and the copy came to EYE through another collector only in 2006. Per the Pordenone 2012 catalogue, the element was a tinted nitrate print of 1140 feet (347.5m), running 55 minutes at 18 frames per second. For the Dutch release, the film was retitled as Miss Clever contra de „Zwarte Hand” (Miss Clever versus the Black Hand), which in my opinion gives a better view to the story than The Secret Castle; only part of the action takes place at a castle, which is not particularly secret.
The online video has no soundtrack; I thought that The Necks’ Drive-By fitted well with the film.
Investigating Ellen Jensen-Eck
Information on other films in which Jensen-Eck appeared is sketchy. Strangely, the Filmportal doesn’t credit her in its listing of Miss Clever (as Das Geheimschloß), but does list her as appearing in a film called Der Diamantensucher (The Diamond Hunters; Continental-Kunstfilm GmbH 1913). From a programme that exists, it certainly looks like fun:
Source: Deutsches Filminstitut
It appears that she also made a couple of films in Denmark (c.f. her listing on the DFI database). Toldstation Nr.12 (Dansk Film 1913) concerns a ballerina, and again the programme presents some appealing images.
Source: Danish Film Institute
From cross-referencing several sources, I have determined that Jensen-Eck’s identifiable filmography consists of the following:
- Toldstation Nr. 12 | Zollstation Nummero zwölf (Customs Station No. 12; DE/DK 1912). Produced by Vitascope GmbH (Berlin) and Dansk-Film (Kopenhagen); costarring Holger Holm; passed censor August 1912. 763m; 692m after cuts. Drama.
- Lotos, die Tempeltänzerin (Lotus, the Temple Dancer; DE 1913). Produced by Continental-Kunstfilm GmbH (Berlin); passed censor September 2013; directed by L. A. Winkel; costarring Maria Berthelsen, Ernst Rückert, and Gottfried Krause. 1030m. An Englishman steals a Buddha’s diamonds.
- Der Diamantensucher (The Diamond Seekers; DE 1913). Produced by Continental-Kunstfilm GmbH (Berlin); passed censor December 1913; costarring Ernst Rückert. A story about a poor Count who seeks diamonds in South Africa and finds a bride.
- Das Fischermädchen von Skagen (The Fisherman’s Daughter of Skagen; DE 1913). Produced by Continental-Kunstfilm GmbH (Berlin); passed censor December 2013; directed by L. A. Winkel; photographed by Georg Hermann Schubert; costarring Ernst Rückert and Eva Speyer. Romantic drama.
- Lolas Hosenrolle (Lola’s Trouser-role; DE 1914). Produced by Neue Filmgesellschaft; passed censor January 2014; directed by L. A. Winkel; costarring Martin Ems. A woman learns what a man wants and outwits him.
- Der Klub der Dicken (DE 1914). Produced by Neue Filmgesellschaft; passed censor March 2014; directed by L. A. Winkel and Felix Ebelt; costarring Martin Ems and Helene Voss. A masseuse causes the whole club to fall in love (with her?) and hides when their wives arrive.
- Das Geheimschloß | Miss Clever contra de „Zwarte Hand” (The Secret Castle | Miss Clever versus the Black Hand; DE 1914). Produced by Apollo-Film; passed censor October 1914. 1053m. A female detective frees the kidnapped son of a banker.
- Undervandsbaaden (The Submarine; DK 1914). Produced by Dansk-Film; Danish theatrical release on 18 Dec 1914; costarring Alf Nielsen.
Apart from Mis Clever, only Lotos, die Tempeltänzerin is known to survive – in Canada, of all places. If any of these other films turn up one day, I would love to see more from this actress.
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Das Geheimschloß | Miss Clever contra de „Zwarte Hand”. Dir. unknown. Germany: Apollo-Film-GmbH, 1914. Available to watch here on the European Film Gateway.