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Nosferatu - Delving deep into the horror

Without Nosferatu the horror genre might not exist

by Simon Crust Nov 6, 2013


  • Movies Article

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    Nosferatu - Delving deep into the horror
    When asked what landmark films define horror, most reply the ‘Universal Three’; Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), James Wales' Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and there is certainly an argument for that. These three films mark the point at which the horror genre as we know and love today became widely exploited. Universal capitalised on their 'monster' formula for many, many years, so much so that they eventually killed it. It took and enterprising young director called John Carpenter to revitalise the genre with his slasher sub-genre Halloween (1978), and then again with his remake, The Thing (1981), but that's another story. However, the ‘Universal Three’ while becoming worldwide institutions are, themselves, following a distinct horror pattern patented some ten years before Dracula was even made. Their horror roots can be traced back to the earliest times of cinema, and to the German expressionist era of the 1920's - specifically W.F. Murnau's unauthorised version of that same film, its name, and the subject of tonight's feature, is: Nosferatu (1922).

    Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, born in 1888, an ex-World War 1 fighter pilot, came to the director’s chair late in his life. His first film Der Knabe in Blau, a horror short about a haunted painting and reincarnation was completed in 1919, but is now sadly lost. The expressionist movement, of which Murnau was a part, produced some incredible feats of cinema. Robert Wiene's, Der Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari), along with Carl Boese and Paul Wegener's, Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem; How He Came into the World), of 1920 are considered seminal. The use of exaggerated camera angles, painted and angled sets and sharp lighting give these films a mystery in an attempt to provoke fear. It is, perhaps, Nosferatu, though, along with Albin Grau set and costume design and Murnau's sense of scale and camera movement, plus the fact that most of the film was shot on location, that raises the stakes and places it beyond expressionism. In using location juxtaposed with expressionism sets (for example in the Count's castle) Murnau manages to alter the audience perception, by giving the film a dream like quality but grounding it in actuality. Murnau's continued use of camera trickery (different frame rates, stop motion, even printing negatives) all add to the wild visual flare, while most frames are given a fore, middle and background; a depth to the frame hither too unseen before. Wells' Citizen Kane (1941), often hailed as the first American film to show depth, just demonstrates how far Murnau was ahead of his time.

    Nosferatu

    Nosferatu was the first, and only, production of Murnau's own company Prana-film. The company was driven bust by overspending on the promotion of this first film, a fact that nearly cost the print itself. Nosferatu is a 'free adaptation' of Bram Stokers Dracula by Henrik Galeen; that means that Prana never secured the rights to make the film opting instead to change the names, locations and some plot points. However, no-one was fooled, least of all Stokers widow, who left impoverished by her husband's death, was totally reliant on revenue of his books. She took Prana to court for copyright infringement; but, because the company was already in the hands of receivership, the judge ordered that all prints of the film be destroyed instead. It is a blessing that the court order was not enforceable worldwide or we would have been robbed of a masterpiece of cinema. Her intervention, however, did complicate the various prints available. When premiered in Berlin on 15 March 1922 the film was five reels (1967 metres) making a run time of 106 minutes at 16 frames per second. There are, however, three other known prints, of which all the latest restoration work has been carried out to make a complete film, comparable to the original premier, and the video/DVD (and now Blu-ray) versions; the 'first French version' was 1900 metres when premiered on 22 November 1922, while the 'second French version' (Nov 1928) and 'Die zwölfte Stunde' a non-authorised re-adaptation with newly filmed inserts (May 1930) were considerable shorter. It is these latter two prints, or combination of them, that most have seen. It was not until 1995 that a near fully restored print was available; it replaced nearly all the missing footage and crucially restored the colour tints that Murnau used to distinguish night from day; as without them much of the film’s time line is rendered obsolete. You can no doubt, then, ascertain there are a substantial number of different versions out there. In fact there are over twenty different DVD versions alone.
    It is, perhaps, Nosferatu, though, along with Albin Grau set and costume design and Murnau's sense of scale and camera movement, plus the fact that most of the film was shot on location, that raises the stakes and places it beyond expressionism
    My first brush with the film came in the form of Hugh Cornwell's 1979 solo album entitled, Nosferatu. Intrigued by the story of the film, not least by its amazing survival, a close friend of mine, Jamie, managed to track down a video. By coincidence the copy was also by Eureka, part of their silent classics, which included the afore mentioned Cabinet of Dr Caligri and The Phantom Carriage (1921) as well as other early classics such as M (1931) and Blue Angel (1930). I watched and was quite amazed. The first copy I bought for myself was the Redemption video, but I hated the music and asked if I could over dub the track with a copy of Jamie's. It was at this point I discovered the differing run times: the Redemption ran at a paltry forty eight minutes compared to the Eureka's ninety. The realisation then dawned on me of different cuts for this seminal film; I of course wanted the best there was available and the search was therefore on. Come the advent of DVD, one of my very first purchases was the Eureka double disc special edition of Nosferatu, this was the exact same copy as their previous video, but shown in either sepia or plain black and white, but it did contain an extensive array of extras. This print was made before the First French Version was found; it is slightly shorter and does not have the tints. I have reviewed before one of only three versions based on the 1995 Bologna restoration (which replaced most of the missing footage and coloured tints) and then again the (then) brand new 2007 F.W. Murnau-Stiftung restoration which replaced all of the surviving missing footage, included the original inter-title (German) cards and the original score; it’s first time on DVD (and from which this review is largely drawn), and now I turn my attention to the Blu-ray of the same.

    Nosferatu

    Act One opens in Bremen, our home town. There Hutter, a real estate agent, is married to Ellen; he is a big fellow, playful, almost boy-ish in his attitude. Ellen is far more spiritual, she cares, even for the flowers that Hutter 'killed' as a present for her. She cradles them as if a child, leading some to believe that the marriage is unconsummated. Hutter is given the job of selling a property, the property opposite his own abode no less, to the mysterious Count Orlok, by Knock, his boss; it means he will have to travel far to the Count's house, in the land of ghosts. He readily accepts, even though Ellen is somewhat wary. These opening few scenes neatly condense the major plot details; Knock sits reading a paper covered with mysterious, un-readable symbols, a note from Orlok himself, they are in collusion. As Hutter, gleeful in his eagerness to pack, rudely ignores Ellen's protests there is wonderful depth given to the frame. Hutter moves back and forth between a front and back bedroom, Ellen remains at the front left to hold the perspective, while far off in the background, through an open window, is the empty residence, the place that will become the cause of the horror that descends on the small town.

    Hutter arrives in a stage coach at an inn near Orlok's land in another wonderfully crafted scene; the coach enters the frame on the right hand side, moving diagonally towards left and away from the camera, serving to really pulling the audience into the picture. Once inside Hutter's impatience has him call to the innkeeper for his dinner, he wants to get to Orlok's castle before nightfall. On hearing that frightful name the townsfolk freeze, dread clearly defined in their stares. The landlord confides in Hutter to stay the night, for a werewolf prowls outside; he agrees. We cut to a blue tinted forest, it is night and we are outside watching a 'werewolf' (in reality a hyena) which menaces some horses causing them to run into the night. Just before bed, inside now, a yellow tint tells us of (artificial) candle light, Hutter pulls a book from his bedside; much like a bible can be found today, called Nosferatu - the Book of the Vampire, but tiredness overcomes him and he falls asleep. He wakes bathed in a pink tint; it is dawn, outside the townsfolk are busy herding the horses, and after washing he casts aside the Vampire Book.

    The following coach journey is long, it is nearly nightfall before it reaches the limits of Orlok's land, where it pulls short. “Offer as much as you want, we shall go no further” the coachman tells Hutter. Unperturbed, Hutter continues on foot, crossing the bridge, the bridge from this world to another, to the world of the Vampire. At full nightfall a strange coach comes to meet Hutter, sheathed in black and with a mysterious rider, it moves with unnatural speed; this journey is fraught with danger. Murnau here utilises different camera speeds to give speed to the carriage, and in one scene even prints the negative, the coach still sheathed in black (in real life white sheeting to appear black in negative) to further enhance the weirdness and unnatural space this world is. Hutter leaves the coach, unscathed, but unnerved at the foot of the castle, a huge dark door invites him in, Orlok, centre stage, framed and surrounded by the darkness beckons. “You've kept me waiting” he says, turns and leads Hutter into the darkness, so ends Act One.
    “Offer as much as you want, we shall go no further” the coachman tells Hutter
    Act Two opens into the castle interior, here we have some wonderful examples of the expressionist set design, chequered floors, stark lighting and grotesques on the walls. Hutter and Orlok are at the dining table, in taking in his surroundings Hutter unwittingly cuts himself, Orlok at once is on his feet to inspect the wound and backs Hutter into a corner; we fade to black. In the morning, Hutter awakes in the same corner, inspects 'mosquito' bites on his neck before writing a letter to Ellen telling her not to worry. As darkness falls once more, Hutter and Orlok are discussing the property when a picture of Ellen unwittingly falls to the table. Orlok admires her neck and signs immediately for the property. Once in his room, Hutter is in dreadful fright, hearing strange noises he opens his door to see Orlok once again framed there. Unable to block the door he is unable to resist Orlok once again. Back in Bremen, Ellen has a waking dream; she is terrified for Harker and tries to get to him but is stopped, shrieking his name as Nosferatu takes his victim once again.

    When dawn breaks, Hutter takes it upon himself to search the castle; he finds a coffin in a cellar. Breaking it open reveals the Count asleep, horror taking him Hutter returns to his room collapsing with exhaustion. Later that night Hutter wakes to see Orlok with his unnatural speed and strength load a coach with six coffins of earth, sealing himself in the final one. Realising Orlok's plan, Hutter shreds a sheet to escape the tower that imprisons him; all the while the raft-men take their dreadful cargo to the port, so ends Act Two.

    Nosferatu

    Act Three contains some of the most iconic imagery associated with Nosferau, particularly the scenes with Orlok on the ship. The entire act is a race between Hutter and Orlok to Bremen played out in a montage. Ellen has become withdrawn and has taken to spending much of her time on the beach looking out for Hutter. Meanwhile Harding (the Van Helsing character) is busy demonstrating various carnivorous plants to some of his students, mirroring Orloks unholy nature. Knock, is becoming increasing unstable with the imminent arrival of Orlok and has been confined to an institute. It is there we first read about the plague that is infesting many people, a plague with an interesting mark, two puncture wounds on the neck. Though it is the ships journey that is of the most interest; one by one the sailors succumb to a mysterious disease and die until only the first mate and captain are left. The first mate, incensed, goes to the hold and breaks into one of the coffins, rats pour forth, true plague bringers. The noise rouses Orlok, he literally rises from the grave, frightening the mate so much he flees the ship. Orlock then ventures topside, the spider amongst the rigging, mirrored by the spider in its web in Knock's cell. The captain cannot abandon his ship, he ties himself to the wheel, the ship is doomed, and when it ports so is the town, so ends Act Three. This whole act is a masterwork of editing, each part of the story flowing seamlessly into the next; the separate journeys, Ellen's plight, the carnivorous plants, simply wonderful stuff. The sense of dread and horror is no better than depicted here, and in any film since; it truly is horrible and makes you feel dirty - rats, disease, death; hand in hand with horror.
    This whole act is a masterwork of editing, each part of the story flowing seamlessly into the next
    Act Four opens with Ellen still subconsciously willing Hutter home. She can feel him near, likewise Knock is ecstatic that Orlok is so close; as if twinned with a common goal both good and evil await their master. Later that night the ship and Hutter make it to Bremen, Orlok carries his coffin of rotten earth to his new house, Hutter goes to Ellen. Both make it safely to their destination as rats spew forth from the hold. Knock murders and escapes his confinement. A council searches the deserted ship and finds the captain lashed to the wheel, but nothing else. A read through of the log tells them of the horrors on board, a proclamation is passed, the city is plague infested; so ends Act Four. Once more Murnau tightens the screw, there are no rest bites; once Hutter and Ellen are reunited in a brief moment of happiness, we cut to Orlok watching outside. The sense of dread is palpable; the multitude of rats, the proclamation to not move the dead, conspiring to confine and constrict the horror to a personal level.

    Nosferatu

    Act Five opens to the stench of death, doors are crossed to signify death inside; the plague is becoming worse. One thing that unites the townspeople is their fear of Knock, he is spotted outside and with a massive effort is finally captured and imprisoned once again. Ellen, meanwhile is suffering, after being implored not to read the Book of the Vampire, she takes it upon herself to read it anyway, and therein finds a possible solution to the horrors. Trying to speak to Hutter as she lies on her bad, he forbids it, blocking the window that overlooks the building containing Orlok. Hutter ventures out to seek Harding's advice, at the same time Orlok, himself at a window, 'calls' to Ellen. After some deliberation and one more look at the Book, she opens her window; she invites the Vampire. This is Orlok's move; he leaves his 'castle' and makes his way to hers. He climbs the stairs, sheathed in shadow; scenes which are, once again, iconic images, much copied by every horror movie, even now, and ever since. Once in her bedroom, Orlok moves to her, she relaxes and offers herself, in perhaps the only 'erotic' part of the film. Too late does Orlok realise her trick, by keeping him there till sunrise, even the strangled cries of Knock cannot save him, within the morning light he vanishes and with him so does the plague and with the plague so does Ellen. Her parting gift to the man she loved is to sacrifice herself that he, and the town may endure. So ends Nosferatu. Though it's not so much an end as a beginning; a beginning of the horror genre.
    He climbs the stairs, sheathed in shadow; scenes which are, once again, iconic images
    The full title of the film is Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens; a Symphony of Horrors; and just like the great symphonies the film plays with a pleasing melody still copied today. Murnau's skill at placement and attention to detail in every frame is reflected in the film as a whole. The detail level of the film; set design, costumes and lighting, all amount to much more than an ordinary production of the time. I've mentioned the use of colour tints to differentiate between night and day; these are essential elements to the whole. Grounding the dreamlike quality of the film in a restrictive timeline effectively lends a sense of realism to the proceedings, this, coupled with the location shooting, must have been enthralling to a contemporary audience. Just as the tinting was an essential ingredient, so too are the inter-titles. Traditionally used to move between scenes or tell dialogue, Murnau uses several different types to further the story as well as. The entire film is 'narrated' by an anonymous observer; these titles are used to further the story and exposit. Hutter reads the Book of the Vampire, a second type of inter-title used to further explain the nuances of the myth. There are the usual dialogue titles and finally the 'newspaper' titles used to exposit the various horrors that descend upon the poor town. Rather than separate entities, Murnau skilfully uses all these different types as part of the film, part of the symphony, part of the painting. This print includes the original German cards with English subtitles.

    Nosferatu

    The casting of the film, too, has had a bearing on its success. All the major players were famous before this film, all seasoned and all put in excellent performances. Gustav von Wangenheim plays Hutter, when we first see him his performance is huge, somewhat over the top, with grand entrances and wild arm movements, however when he is subjected to the various horrors, he virtually shrinks into himself, his performance becoming far more intimate, a total contrast, thus emphasising the nature of his plight. Greta Schröder as Ellen by contrast starts off small; most of her early scenes are almost portraits, acting with her eyes. It is only when she has her waking dreams that her performance becomes more exaggerated, and for me less believable. Georg H. Schnell as Harding was a seasoned theatre actor, though he has little to do in the film, he is very subdued, a serious doctor and philanthropist he comes across as such. Knock, played by Alexander Granach puts in the most exaggerated performance of all. With his wild starring eyes, uncontrollable hair, black rotten teeth and manic movements he comes across as the very crazy character he is trying to portray. When he murders in the institution we can see him at his best; crazed and manic, ever the insect eater, he is totally believable. And finally the Count himself, in stark contrast to every 'Dracula' since, Max Schreck creates a monster. Never in any Dracula movie has the vampire been so utterly monstrous, much like the Wampyri of Brian Lumley's Necroscope series of books, Nosferatu is a fully blown creature, with pointed features, claws and furtive, jerky movements; Schreck portrays the Count more rodent and spider like than a suave erotic killer that Dracula has become synonymous with. It is this performance that really lends the horror to the story, if this hideous creature can seduce Ellen at the end of the film then surely he can come for anyone. So realistic was his performance and that the fact that Schreck translates from German into 'terror' had much of the public believing that he was in fact a real vampire. A story so fantastic that E. Elias Merhige remade it as a film in itself, Shadow of the Vampire, in 2000; it was, of course, not true.
    So, there we have it, Nosferatu; A Symphony of Horrors, not only one of the greatest horror films of all time, but also one of the greatest films full stop
    The original score is reasonably gothic, plenty of strings with sweeping melodies and grandiose climaxes. In all the music that I've heard accompanying this film, and I'm quite sure this is my petulance for unabridged versions coming out here, I think it suits the film the best. The cues are strong and there is a sense of horror invoked, particularly matches well with all of Orlok's scenes, Knock too has a rather sinister tune. The additional scenes only amount to a few seconds of footage and really add nothing to move the story forward; the largest section is an entirely new segment at the beginning of act four and sits between Ellen sitting on the beach and the arrival of the letter from Hatter; it is a short croquet game between the Ellen's friends, the postman delivering the letter and the rush to get it to Ellen. However, being able to see this footage for the first time in a completely restored version is tantamount to ecstasy.

    So, there we have it, Nosferatu; A Symphony of Horrors, not only one of the greatest horror films of all time, but also one of the greatest films full stop. In crafting a tight masterwork of a film, Murnau has set the standard for which all horror films are measured; it is a testament to its greatness that even now directors draw inspiration from the lighting and the shadow (Coppola's Dracula?) even if they don't acknowledge it. This latest and greatest version from Eureka cannot be beaten, in restoring the tints, all footage and with the original score the film it has taken me to new depths; it has taken me to new heights.

    Nosferatu is horror.

    Nosferatu is horror.

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