I like to think that there are few other blogs that snap from reviews of lighter-than-air family CGI fun fests like Rio straight into articles on 1922 silent German expressionist horror films. It’s this blog’s USP – sadly, a USP that also this implies the lack of focus that is surely the reason why this blog will never be a breakout hit that will make me millions!
The overlap in audience between Rio and the 1922 “first” vampire film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (“Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror”, to give it its full name) may well be so narrow as to consist of just one person, i.e. me. Certainly this 1922 landmark won’t be of much interest to the mainstream that delighted in Rio: these days, Nosferatu‘s appeal is limited to historians of silent film, fans of German expressionistic movies, and lovers of horror fare down the ages. I happily claim to be in all three of those camps, albeit in the amateur/dilettante capacity and by no means an expert.
As a little background history: this film is the earliest screen version of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula and was directed in Germany by FW Murnau. The only problem was that the Prana-Film studio couldn’t afford the rights to the book, so they thought that they could get away with it purely by making a few cosmetic name changes to the source novel: vampire becomes Nosferatu, Count Dracula becomes Count Orlok, Jonathan Harker becomes Thomas Hutter and his wife Mina is now Ellen; Renfield is rechristened Knock and Professor Van Helsing is Professor Bulwer, and so on. The studio was proved to be very wrong in its assumption that this would keep them out of trouble, and Stoker’s widow pursued them through the courts and won – the end result being an order to destroy all copies of the film for good. Thank goodness that a few slipped through the net, sufficient to be pieced back together 75 years later.
Changed names aside, the film is remarkably faithful to the book (undoubtedly the reason for its legal downfall): in many ways it is more accurate than the film versions that followed for the next six decades, since most of them got ‘hijacked’ by the influence of the 1931 legal version from Universal starring Bela Lugosi, which largely stemmed from adaptations of a stage play that perforce dumped a lot of the more ‘expensive’ elements of the novel in favour of a one-set drawing room setting in order to make it more affordable and suitable for theatrical staging.
For modern audiences, there’s precious little ‘horror’ to be found here: no blood or gore, few special effects other than some dissolves, ghostly overlays and some negative-image stop-motion eeriness. Any time that things start to get too unsettling, such as when the vampire feeds on Hutter/Harker or approaches the bed of Ellen/Mina, Murnau switches to using the vampire’s shadow rather than the actual actor, which both lessens the direct ‘horror’ while leaving a much more artistic and unsettling effect in its place and providing us with the film’s most iconic moments (such as the moment Orlok’s silhouette stalks up the stairs, and the shadow clenches its fist around Ellen’s heart.)
Orlok is without question the film’s pivotal strength and the source of much of the film’s enduring reputation. He’s an extraordinary physical presence here, so outlandish, inhuman and nightmarish in appearance that literally hundreds of movie monsters have paid a debt to it down the ages ever since. It’s even more remarkable how he dominates the film given that he’s in only around 12 of the 94 minutes of the running time (but then, that’s just as true of how a largely absent Dracula dominants the original book that bears his name.)
As well as his makeup and basic appearance, it’s his strange gait and stance that are so extraordinary, so much so that it’s even more jarring and disappointing when the actor Max Schreck lapses into anything more contemporary in terms of performance. His final scene, as he tries to tip-toe away from Ellen/Mina before daybreak, recalls the high camp ‘tip toeing’ that you’ll see in pantomimes today, but that’s simply the style of acting in these early days of cinema – just as much as Gustav von Wangenheim’s over-the-top early scenes as a “happy, carefree, lovestruck Hutter” that resemble a two-year-old who has just devoured two pounds of raw sugar. Later on, von Wangenheim gets to play a haggard, crushed Hutter after his escape from Castle Orlok, and demonstrates that whether good or bad, the earlier scenes were most definitely an intentional performance.
While this is undoubtedly Schreck’s film as Orlok, there is one role and performance that comes close to stealing large portions: Alexander Granach as Knock. The role of the insane Renfield has always been one of the juiciest in the Dracula story (think Dwight Frye’s marvellous performance in the 1931 version of the book, or Pablo Alvarez Rubio’s arguably better one in the simultaneous Spanish version shot on the same sets by night; or Tom Waits in the Francis Ford Coppola 1992 film) and Granach has great fun with the role here in expanded screen time, ranging from impish and malevolent, to crazy and playful, to sly and cunning.
With an absence of ‘horror’, the film turns instead to making use of the natural world to provide some of its more gruesome sequences: there’s an explicit link between vampirism and the Black Death, just as vampires would later become popular again in the era of AIDS; there are several scenes of packs of rats swarming around rotting and ruined castles and ship holds; there’s an interesting sequence where Bulwer/van Helsing shows his students two carnivorous plants (including the inevitable Venus flytrap) that he compares to vampires and phantoms, which while completely real must have been like something out of science fiction for most audience members watching in the 1920s.
It’s a good job Bulwer has this sequence because otherwise he’s almost irrelevant to the film. Unlike the usual van Helsing, he’s no vampire expert and in fact no real use at all. Instead, it’s Ellen/Mina who reads up on the subject from a book on superstitions inadvertently brought back by her husband from Transylvania and who works out how to defeat the nosferatu, by offering herself up as bait so that the Count is caught out in the open when the morning sun comes up.
I started watching this on Sky Arts (it was part of their Halloween offering), the satellite channel that exists to ‘prove’ Rupert Murdoch’s assertion that you can do away with the BBC now because Sky will do it all for you at five times the subscription price. However, the last 35 minutes I ended up watching off a DVD I had of the same 2000 restored version that I believe is no longer in print, and was surprised by how much better it was on the disc – the colour tints signifying daylight/indoor light/nighttime were more complete, the brighter areas of the film far less blown out than the broadcast version. Considering the film’s age and history, it’s remarkable that it looks as good as it does – obviously there’s a lot of noise and dirt, and some clearly missing frames now and again, but even in its worst state there’s nothing here to prevent perfectly aceptable viewing.
This version features an original score which is … Interesting. At times it’s very good and effective in making the film feel creepy where it needs to, or pumps up the tension or explodes into action with some chase music as Hutter and Orlok race to return to the (fictional) city of Wisborg before the other via different routes. Other times, though, it’s just a very weird mix – ranging from some dated synthesiser music of the 90s, through to abstract atonal percussion weirdness, and then moments which are just ‘noise’ like a high-pitched buzzing that goes on far too long and lapses from effective to outright annoyance. Still, for the most part the score does match the on-screen action and hence does what a good silent movie score should do. The one place it seems oddly caught out and lets things down is in the iconic scene when the Count rises from his coffin in a strikingly unnatural way: the score is completely oblivious to this stunning moment for some reason.
There’s a later, ‘definitive’ restoration out these days with a proper orchestral score from the original premiere that I must get around to trying out and comparing one of these days. It’s certainly a film that despite its age and its obvious flaws proves to be remarkably compelling and rewatchable time and again for students of the era, style and genre of which Nosferatu is such a striking example.