Monday, October 1, 2012

Stubs – Nosferatu

NOSFERATU aka Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder. Directed by F.W. Murnau. Screenplay by Henrik Galeen. Inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Produced by Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau. Run time: 94. Color tinted black and white. Germany. Horror, Silent

With Halloween later this month, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some horror films, the most appropriate genre at this time of year. It might interest you to know that the horror film dates back to 1896 with Georges Melies’ Le Manoir du Diable (aka The Haunted Castle). While Melies made the film to amuse viewers, it is still considered to be the first horror film and the first vampire film to boot. What’s old is new again.

But while a French magician/filmmaker may have invented the genre, it may have taken German Expressionism to make them actually scary. While no one wants a film history lesson, it is important to know that German Expressionism had a major influence on not only horror films, but also film noir. The movement which had been around before World War I, reached its peak in the 1920’s. German Expressionism was part of a larger European expressionist movement in not only cinema, but also in architecture and painting.

Following Germany’s defeat in World War I, cinema began to explode in that country. However, with inflation on the rise in the Weimar Republic at an almost geometric rate, costs were of a great concern. To save on lighting, as an example, the sets featured exaggerated shadows painted in on the walls and floors. Like their sets, the films dealt with heavy and heady issues like madness, insanity and betrayal, as opposed to action and adventure or romantic films. Directors like Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau would bring this style of filmmaking with them to Hollywood, which saw an immigration of talent from Germany as Hitler came to power.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was first published in 1897 to good reviews, but was not considered to be a best seller when it was released. Still, in 1921, Albin Grau wanted to make a vampire movie, based in part on his own experience from World War I. In the winter of 1919, a Serbian farmer told him that his father was not only one of the undead, but also a vampire. When Grau and Enrico Dieckmann founded Prana Film, they couldn’t afford to buy rights to Stoker’s novel, so instead, they hired Henrik Galeen, an experienced screenwriter [The Student of Prague (1913) and The Golem (1920)] to write one inspired by the novel. Galeen changed character names, dropped the Van Helsing vampire hunter character and changed the setting to a fictional German seaport, Wisborg.

It is in Wisborg that Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) lives with his wife Ellen (Greta Schroder) and works for Knock (Alexander Granach), a real estate agent. Knock sends Hutter to visit a potential new client, Count Orlok to sell him the house that is right across from Thomas’. Before leaving for what promises to be a long business trip, Thomas puts Ellen in the care of his good friends Harding (Georg H. Schnell) and sister Annie.

After a journey of several months, Thomas arrives in a village near Orlok’s castle. At the village tavern, Thomas mentions his business with Orlok, which sends fear throughout the inn. Everyone warns him not to go. But Thomas does not heed their warnings. But a wolf has come down from the mountains and scared away Thomas’ horses, so he is forced to stay the night. The next morning he hires a coach, but the driver will only go as far as a bridge in a high mountain pass. As night is falling the driver refuses to go further. Getting out of the coach and walking across the bridge, Thomas is approached by an eerie looking black coach that moves surrealistically fast. In what is no doubt a cheap special effect, the journey on the coach is shown in reverse. Black is white and white is black as the coach races to Orlok’s castle.

Finally, Thomas meets Count Orlok (Max Schreck), a bat-like man with long fingers, pointy ears, sharp teeth, bugged out eyes and no hair. That night at dinner, Thomas accidentally cuts himself and Count Orlok tries to lick up Thomas’ “precious blood”. This, naturally, scares Thomas, but he spends the rest of the night talking to Orlok in front of the fireplace. After Thomas falls asleep, he wakes up with two small bite marks, which he blames on mosquitoes. The next night, Thomas finalizes his deal with Orlok, selling him the deserted house across from his own. Accidentally, Orlok sees a photograph of Thomas’ wife, Ellen, to which he comments about her “beautiful neck.”

From then on, Orlok starts to plague Ellen’s dreams. After that, Thomas wakes up to find he’s alone in the castle. He comes across the coffin in which Orlok is lying in state. Horrified, Thomas cowers in his room. He has been reading The Book of Vampires, a book he took from the tavern and is now convinced that Orlok is Nosferatu, the Bird of Death. He tries but there is no way to bar the door to his room. At midnight, the door opens by itself and Orlok enters the room and Thomas falls unconscious.

That evening, Thomas wakes up in time to see Orlok loading coffins into a carriage. Orlok crawls into the last one before the carriage starts away. Thomas tries to escape from the castle by climbing down a rope made of bed sheets, but falls and loses consciousness. He later wakes up in a hospital and immediately leaves for Wisborg, hoping to beat Orlok. Meanwhile, the coffins get loaded onto a ship, the Empusa. Orlok manages to kill off the crew except the Captain (Max Nemetz) and the First Mate (Wolfgang Heinz). When the First Mate goes below to destroy the coffins, Orlok frightens him into jumping into the ocean. The captain becomes the last victim after he lashes himself to the wheel to maintain course and dies there.

Ellen by now is under Orlok’s spell and is just waiting for him to arrive. When the boat lands in Wisborg, Orlok and some rats depart. Unobserved, Orlok carries the coffin to his new house. Thomas returns to Wisborg and heads for Ellen. She feels better now that her husband is back with her. Authorities board the ship and find the Captain’s dead body. They assume that the boat has brought the plague and people start dying in town.

Knock, who has been institutionalized for having gone insane, presumably because of his own connection to Orlok, escapes after killing the warden and is chased by townspeople. Orlok stares from his window at a sleeping Ellen. Against Thomas’ instructions, she had read the Book of Vampires, and knows the only way to defeat a vampire is for a woman who is pure in heart to distract the vampire with her beauty all through the night. She opens her window and invites Orlok to come over and then faints. Thomas tries to revive her and then heads out to get the town doctor (Gustav Botz). While he’s gone, Orlok comes into Ellen’s bedroom.

But Orlok is so engrossed by drinking Ellen’s blood that he doesn’t see that morning is coming. When the rooster crows, Orlok realizes it’s too late and he vanishes. At that moment, the great death that was plaguing Wisborg stops and as the film tells us “and the shadow of the vampire vanished as if overcame by the victorious rays of the living sun." Ellen lives only long enough to die in Thomas’ arms.

Nosferatu was the first film adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula and it wouldn’t be the last one. However, since it was made without permission, the Stoker estate sued Prana Film and won, leading to the company’s bankruptcy. A judge ordered the destruction of all the prints of the film, but one print had already been distributed around the world and other prints have been made from that. Otherwise, the film might have been lost forever.

For many, the definitive Dracula adaptation was made nine years later by Universal starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning. But while that film relied on Lugosi’s powerful personality, it is not even the scariest Dracula released by Universal in 1931. For those that have seen it, the Spanish language version, Drácula directed by George Melford and starring Carlos Villarìas as the Conde, made at night using the same sets of Lugosi’s Dracula, is scarier.

But I would say that Nosferatu is even scarier than that. To illustrate this opinion, let’s look at the main characters:

Count Orlok (Max Schreck) Nosferatu (1922)

Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) Dracula (1931)

Conde Drácula (Carlos Villarìas) Drácula (1931)

Of these three, I would say the one at the top is nightmare fuel. Count Orlok does not have the style or seductive powers of his American cousins. Rather he is more of a monster, his long sharp fingernails and sharp teeth (more than a couple of fangs). And Orlok is a serial killer, bringing with him the plague, killing hundreds. Dracula on the other hand probably has killed his fair share of victims, but he is not death incarnate the way Orlok is.

The special effects, which are dated, include using a negative image and sped up projection do give certain scenes an intended unrealistic look. And at the time, Nosferatu was considered so scary that it was banned in Sweden and Turkey. While I don’t think jaded modern audiences would be shocked by the film, Nosferatu is both a masterpiece and accessible example of German Expressionism.

This is also an example of director F.W. Murnau’s mastery of filmmaking. While Murnau’s career was short, lasting only twelve years from 1919 to 1931, he did leave behind four classic films: Nosferatu (1922); The Last Laugh (1924) with Emil Jannings; Faust (1926) and Sunrise (1927), made after he emigrated to Hollywood to work for Fox.

October is the time of the year to watch horror films and if you haven’t ever seen Nosferatu, you are surely missing out.

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