Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Silent Film Fest - Day 4 - Nosferatu (1922)

Ah, what has become of the vampire? When did they become the good guys, the object of teenage angst and lust? For that matter, when did they themselves become full of teenage angst and lust? Whatever happened to the vampire who was a creature to be feared - the creature of the night who was a hunter subject to an uncotrollable bloodlust? Where now is the vampire who changes into a bat or mist, who controls and communes with the creatures of the night, who is a nearly unstoppable force that threatens to overrun towns and turn innocents into hellborn creatures like itself?

In short, when did vampires begin to sparkle in the sunlight instead of cringing and turning to dust?

If, like me, you prefer your vampires to be truly eerie almost unknowable creatures whose main goal in life is not to slip between the sheets with some teenage girl but rather to drain the lifeblood from her to continue his existance, then you will certainly be pleased with the depiction of the creature found in today's film, 1922's Nosferatu.

As envisioned by director F.W. Murnau and portrayed by Max Shreck (whose very name translated into English as "Terror"), Count Orlock, the vampire or nosferatu of the title is truly more creature than human. With his pointed ears, claw-like hands, and elongated, protruding fangs, there is no mistaking this count for anything other than what he is - an animal that is made for hunting.

Adding to the almost alien nature of the title figure are the expressionistic film techniques used by Murnau in crafting the film. Full of rugged exteriors, crumbling buildings and looming clouds, the outside shots create an atmosphere of forboding that is carried to the insides of buildings which are full of oddly angled lines, diffused lighting, and shadows. Nor are these typical shadows. The shadows in Nosferatu are at times almost creatures unto themselves, growing and creeping up staircases and looming over our unsuspecting heroine.

Of course, one can hardly talk about Nosferatu without considering both the source material of the film and its highly contentious history. The movie is, in truth, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's seminal vampire novel Dracula. Unfortunately, Prana Film, the company that funded the production could not afford the fees associated with licensing the novel from Stoker's estate. Therefore they decided to simply change the setting and names for the film and hope that it would be considered a separate creation. Luckily for film viewers, but not so much for the company, the first part of the film hews so closely to the novel that there is simply no mistaking the source, despite the cosmetic changes. (The film actually diverges quite a bit from the novel during the latter stages, and one has to wonder if the somewhat truncated ending isn't at least in some ways a result of the company's lack of funds. At the same time, it actually adds a bit to the vampire lore, as this is the first time that we see a vampire turned to dust and destroyed by the sunlight.)

Nonetheless, Stoker's widow sued Prana over the unauthorized adaptation and won, a victory that had two effects. First, it pretty well spelled doom for Prana, as they never went on to make another film (though again fortunately for film lovers, Murnau did go on to have a very healthy career afterwards), and all prints of the film were ordered destroyed. By this time, however, those prints had been distributed all around the world, and tracking them all down became impossible. Therefore prints were tucked away and though the film was thought lost for years, it has since resurfaced and has a very large cult following amongst silent film fans, lovers of German Expressionism, and vampire lovers.

There are, of course, certain problems that modern audiences often encounter when viewing the film. First, of course, there is simply the aversion that many have to silent films. I would suggest, however, that especially for horror fans, Nosferatu may well be the perfect introduction to the genre. Since it is, for the most part, a story that they will already know, there is not so much the feeling of trying to figure out exactly what is going on, rather there is often more a sensation of trying to compare this version with other interpretations of the story to see where they are alike and where they differ. Secondly, yes, the acting is at times very broad, especially in the scene where Hutter, the Johnathan Harker equivalent, first discovers the nature of his uncanny host. One must, however, keep in mind two things: first, much of the overexpressionism is simply a result of the actors and director trying to convey the story with an economy of words; also, much of the overacting, I contend, is intentional, intended to break the tension for an audience that was, at the time, unused to seeing such supernatural happenings as the vampire effortlessly rising straight up from his coffin. Even today, a good director knows when to give the audience a little break from the tension that he has been building, if for no other reason than to make the horror even more palpable when it does happen.

Another possible stumbling block for modern viewers is the subplot of the vampire count bringing the plague to the streets of the city of Wisborg. In large part a result and perhaps fortunate offshoot of changing the setting of the film from London to Europe, Murnau was able to introduce this concept which again helps to heighten the feeling of unease that pervades the film and gives the audience another visceral reaction to this invader. It also allows the film to play off of the fear of unintended consequences of immigrants coming from foreign shores, a theme that has its own resonances even today.

Finally, when approaching Nosferatu, like many silent films from the era, a modern viewer is going to encounter a number of different choices when it comes to picking a DVD of the film to watch. Because of its status as a public domain movie (at least in the U.S., though it is not p.d. in some other countries, including Germany), it has been released numerous times, and many of these releases are taken from prints of varying quality and will have different soundtracks and different translations of the intertitles. (Some English translations, including the one I'll link to at the bottom which is available from the Internet Archive, even go so far as to rename the characters using the names from Stoker's novel.) Which is the best? In some ways that is up to the individual preferences of the viewer, but I personally recommend the Kino version which has a very good looking print with the original German intertitles and English subtitles, along with many extras. (Again, see the Amazon link below.)

So, in the end, is Nosferatu, as some have said, the best interpretation of Stoker's novel ever put to film? Perhaps. But what it definitely is is an atmospheric, highly stylized and incredibly eerie film that not only has a look all its own but holds true to the "otherness" of the vampire and sustains and maintains the concept of the vampire as a thing to be feared.

In other words, Kiddies, Count Orlock don't sparkle.

Here's a clip that runs about nine minutes and will give you a good feel for the flavor of the movie:

And the skinny:
Title: Nosferatu
Release Date: 1922
Running Time: 94min
Color Tinted
Starring: Max Shreck, Gustav von Wangenheim
Directed by: F.W. Murnau
Produced by: Enrico Dieckmann, Albin Grau
Distributed by: Film Arts Guild

Nosferatu is available to watch or download for free here.
It's also available on  DVD from Amazon: Nosferatu (The Ultimate Two-Disc Edition).

Netflix also has the disk available to rent or watch instantly: Nosferatu: Original Version.

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian


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