Wednesday 19 May 2010

Nosferatu, a Symphony of Terror (1922)

Director: F W Murnau
Stars: Max Schreck and Gustav von Wangenheim
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I've been disappointed with Nosferatu every time I've seen it, though I should include two major caveats. Firstly, I haven't seen a decent print yet, as the versions I've seen thus far are all low quality public domain prints. I really should get round to picking up a Kino or Image DVD and see what I haven't seen over the years. Secondly, I expected a lot. Nosferatu is almost ninety years old, the oldest film to make the IMDb Top 250, and is a pioneer in so many ways that it's difficult to count them. Among the most important is its look and feel, as it's one of the three key films that brought German expressionism to a wider audience, the other two being The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Golem. This shines through even in the rough prints I've seen and surely must be very apparent in a pristine copy. Most obviously though it's a vampire movie, one that helped shape its genre and gifted us with what may still be the most horrific vampire on film.

Nosferatu is a treatment of Bram Stoker's Dracula, marking the first time that the Count found his way into film, beginning a cinematic legacy that has eclipsed that of every fictional character except perhaps Sherlock Holmes. However it was a rather free adaptation which changed the names of the major characters and removed the lesser ones, changed the timeframe and the settings and introduced important concepts not in the novel, some taken directly from European folklore and which have since become inextricably entwined with the Dracula story. Nonetheless Stoker's estate literally sued Prana Film out of existence, and only the verdict's timing prevented the film's annihilation, as a number of prints had already been released worldwide. The writer was Henrik Galeen, who with Paul Wegener had adapted both the 1915 and 1920 versions of The Golem from Yiddish legend. He would go on to write Waxworks and The Student of Prague.

In the Stoker novel, Count Dracula is a nobleman who lives with his minions in his castle in the Carpathian mountains. Jonathan Harker travels there to assist with a real estate transaction, as the Count wishes to buy a house in England and lose himself among the teeming masses, but finds himself confined to the castle and plagued by wanton vampires. The Count travels west on the Demeter, a Russian ship which arrives in Whitby with all crew lost and the captain lashed to the helm. He proceeds to pursue Harker's fiancée, Mina, along with her friend, Lucy, a popular girl who turns down a number of marriage proposals. One is from John Seward, who runs the lunatic asylum that contains Renfield, a man who eats small creatures to absorb their life force and who acts as a proximity sensor for the Count. The Dutch professor Abraham Van Helsing realises what is happening, chases the Count back to Transylvania and stakes him with a knife.

In the Galeen adaptation, Graf Orlok is a ratlike monster who lives alone in his castle in the Carpathian mountains. Thomas Hutter travels there to assist with a real estate transaction, as the Count wishes to buy a house in Wisborg, and is gifted The Book of Vampires by locals who believe that Orlok is one. Hutter finds himself confined to the castle. The Graf travels west on the Demeter, which arrives in Wisborg with all crew lost and the captain lashed to the helm. In the Demeter's wake comes plague. Orlok proceeds to pursue Hutter's wife, Ellen. Knock, Hutter's employer, is driven mad by influence from the Graf and institutionalised, where he eats flies and acts as a proximity sensor. After Hutter returns home, Ellen reads The Book of Vampires and discovers a way to kill Orlok. A woman pure in heart must willingly give her blood to him so that he loses track of time and dies when the sun rises. She succeeds but dies herself in the process.

As you can see, there are unmistakable similarities between these versions but notable changes too, far beyond names and locations, especially once the Count reaches the west. Using Stoker's names as examples, Renfield isn't just a random lunatic, he's the agent who sends Harker to the Count, suggesting that the Count's influence arrived with his initial letter, which is comprised of strange glyphs and magical symbols. There is no Van Helsing in Nosferatu, though a Prof Bulwer is aware of bloodsucking creatures as he demonstrates Venus Flytraps and carnivorous polyps to his students. There is no staking, indeed any trip back to Transylvania, as Nosferatu introduces a new concept, that a vampire can be killed by sunlight and pure intent. The Count is the only one of his kind, as there are no Brides of Dracula in his castle, but he has an affinity to rats and between them they spread plague instead of undeath. Orlok does not make more Orloks.
The most obvious difference is in the demeanour of the Count. Stoker's Dracula is a seductive nobleman, aptly portrayed on screen by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, and whose influence remains massive today in the works of Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris and Laurell K Hamilton, even Stephanie Meyer. Galeen's Orlok is a monster, pure and simple, and the performance by German actor Max Schreck is possibly the greatest portrayal of an inhuman monster that cinema has yet seen, even though he only has a mere nine minutes on screen. Schreck is so memorable that the rumour that director F W Murnau hired a real vampire to play Orlok rather than an actor is believable, an idea aided by the fact that his very surname translates to 'fright'. Shadow of the Vampire is an intriguing take on this. In reality Schreck was a real actor, with four credits prior to Nosferatu and who continued to act until his death in 1936 of a heart attack, not stake.

In fact Schreck is so good as Graf Orlok that the film suffers for his absence and so we're forced to suffer for a while through an overacting Gustav von Wangenheim before we're treated to Max Schreck. To give him some credit, he is hindered by playing the Jonathan Harker role, inherently the boring one in any Dracula movie because he's the regular Joe in a story all about fascinating monsters. However, von Wangenheim manages the dubious achievement of perhaps outdoing Keanu Reeves as my least favourite Harker of all time. It isn't just the way in which he overacts, which is not the usual silent era gesticulation, but the way he animates his character. Ebullient and overconfident, he bounds through life without a care. Rather than being the type whose joy is contagious and energising, he's the type who simply annoys, who slaps you on the back after sleeping with your wife, who never learns even if someone drops a piano on his head.

Unfortunately it's von Wangenheim as Thomas Hutter who we watch through much of the early film, after a brief glimpse of Alexander Granach as Knock, his boss. Granach is entirely allowed, even encouraged, to go wild, because he has the Renfield role, one that has a little more depth here because he's the agent who receives Orlok's cabalistic letter and so gets a brief moment to go insane, not just start there. Renfield has always attracted intriguing character actors, from Dwight Frye's defining take in the Universal Dracula, through Bruno Ganz in Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre, to Tom Waits in Coppola's presumptuously titled Bram Stoker's Dracula. Granach is a worthy beginning to that tradition, a talented actor who would later shine in films as varied as Pabst's Comradeship, Lubitsch's Ninotchka and Lang's Hangmen Also Die!, ironically playing a Gestapo Inspector given that he was a Galician Jew who escaped Hitler for Hollywood.

Granach plays Knock like a demonic clown, the sort of character you might expect Danny de Vito to play in a Spawn movie. This is a silent film but you can just hear him cackling, his wide eyes and grin outrageous and always alive. When he summons Hutter to send to Transylvania he has an edge to him. 'Young as you are, what matter if it costs you some pain,' he tells him, 'or even a little blood?' Perhaps von Wangenheim had to play Hutter as unreasonably ebullient. If not, he wouldn't have accepted the job! Even in the poor quality prints I saw, Granach gleams and acts more like a coiled spring than a human being. He's wonderfully twitchy in the asylum, snatching flies out of the air, crying 'Blood! Blood!' and sidling up to people with malicious intent. After he murders the warden and escapes, he takes to the rooftops and gets hit by stones, seemingly unaware of what the townsfolk are throwing at him. He's joyous to watch.

As great as Granach is, he very much plays second fiddle to Schreck, who dominates the film as Graf Orlok. Circumstance surely helped, as in 1922 he didn't have Bela Lugosi's iconic portrayal of Dracula to influence him. Everyone tasked with playing a vampire after 1931 couldn't help but bear the influence of Lugosi, whether they care to admit it or not. Schreck had free rein to create a creature entirely apart from anything that had gone before him through a combination of body language and silent era make up techniques and he succeeds magnificently. Galeen's choice to write the character without Stoker's dark romanticism but instead with a kinship to the plague carrying rat is the foundation, as Orlok looks notably like a tall thin rat, right down to the incisors being elongated rather than the canines, the stretched ears and the clawlike hands that seem vestigial rather than functional. He only blinks once in the entire movie.
Who built on the foundation to decide on the choices of stance or motion, I have no idea, but they nailed it, conjuring up a vampire from sweatsoaked nightmare rather than wet dream with a quirky posture and gait that make us uneasy every time we see him. He's somehow the wrong shape for a human being, too tall and thin like a midget perched on the shoulders of a regular sized man. It would have been so easy for Schreck to go wild and overact, especially in a silent movie, but if anything he underplays the part and leaves even more of an impression for it. All the best shots are of him: Orlok seen through his coffin lid, Orlok manhandling his coffins onto a cart, Orlok rising from his coffin in the Demeter's hold, Orlok emerging from the ghost ship in Wisborg, Orlok standing at the window willing Ellen to come to him, Orlok's shadow on her wall, Orlok hearing the cock crow and knowing that it's all over, Orlok contorting in the sunlight.

Even shots that would be powerful elsewhere become lessened through comparison here. One shot of a Wisborg street has many people carrying coffins in procession, all sombre and spaced out enough to suggest massive scale. Yet we've just watched Orlok creeping through the town at night, with his coffin under his arm, as if the weight is nothing. Obviously Murnau didn't task his actor with a real wooden coffin full of Transylvanian soil but Schreck still makes us wonder just what it was made of for him to ignore the weight so utterly. On the Demeter, with only captain and mate left of a compliment of fourteen passengers and crew, the first mate takes it upon himself to search the hold, only for Orlok to rise before him and scare him into leaping into the sea. Presumably this was a sprung board but it's so well done that even the hardened horror nut can't help but feel a rush. As an intertitle says, 'Nosferatu! That name alone can chill the blood.'

The only flaw to the scenes with Orlok is one that isn't present in the original movie and has only been propagated through low quality prints over the years. While the concept of sunlight being anathema to vampires began with this film, it's become an established part of vampire lore. In Bram Stoker's original novel, it was merely debilitating and Count Dracula does wander around a little during the day. Here Graf Orlok appears to wander around during sunlight all the time, but this is because the scenes were indeed shot during the day and later tinted blue to represent night, a frequent convention during the silent era because the orthochromatic film stock could only be used in environments with plenty of light. When screened in black and white, of course, this tint is lost and with it, some of the continuity. Intertitles that reset the names to those in Dracula but for some reason change Wisborg to Bremen rather than Whitby don't help either.

I'm fascinated to find out what the real translations of the original German intertitles reveal. Those I read were often clumsy and remained on screen too long, but there were still gems of wordplay. Hutter's journey to Orlok's castle ends unceremoniously when the coachmen drop him at a bridge and refuse to go further. 'And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him,' reads the following intertitle which is simple but utterly effective, as effective as Orlok's coach that hastens to pick him up with bizarre movements that are more like stop motion animation than sped up film. Like Orlok himself, it doesn't feel real. 'Blood! Your precious blood!' cries the creepy count as he is drawn towards Hutter who has cut his finger. There's one perhaps unintentionally humorous line that may well translate differently in more authentic prints. 'Is this your wife?' Orlok asks Hutter when he sees a photograph of her. 'What a lovely throat!'

While a pristine, properly restored print of Nosferatu may well elevate the film for me by showing it as it was originally intended, for now it feels like a flawed masterpiece. Undeniably creepy and with the greatest screen vampire of them all, there is too much in between Schreck's scenes that feels weak in comparison. Gustav von Wangenheim is annoying as Hutter, Greta Schröder gets too little to do as Ellen, lesser characters like Ruth Harding and Prof Bulwer have little reason to even be in the film. We are forced to have patience through many of these scenes, while waiting for the horror to return. And horror it truly is. There's no metaphor for sex and reproduction here, no seduction or dark romance. Graf Orlok is a creature who evokes purest terror, his vampirism reminiscent only of the plague, a time honoured blight upon the land that cannot be reasoned with, merely extinguished. Even after ninety years Nosferatu still exudes that terror.

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