Monday, April 8, 2013

SILENT CINEMA: Nosferatu (1922)

It is subtitled "The Symphony of Horror," and is the birth of the celluloid vampire.  Nine years before Bela Lugosi added layers of sexuality and humanism to Dracula, the world's most famous vampire, it was F.W. Murneau's nightmarish vision of the character which set the precedent.  Nosferatu is a film that needs no sound, no spoken words, because it exists all in the mood of the visuals and the macabre performances, most notably of Max Schreck who plays the vampire.  The story is the same as any straight Dracula story, based on the Bram Stoker classic epistolary novel, but here it is at its most primal and, arguably, most disturbing.  Some silent films feel dated because of their technology liitations; Nosferatu remains as eerie and masterful as it did nearly one hundred years ago.

The antiquated delivery adds a certain level of dread to the proceedings as you glimpse into a distant past to a time unknown by most of us.  The skittish framework and the opaque transfer enrich the text and the events rather than hinder.  The story, as I mentioned, is familiar to any fans of the Dracula legend.  A young man travels to the castle of (in this version, due to the protests of Bram Stoker's widow) Count Orlock, whose very mention sends chills up the spines of the villagers.  They warn young Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) that Count Orlock is not human.  He is the bringer of death, living in the realm of ghosts and conjurer all sorts of bad things upon any who fall victim.  Hutter laughs off these warnings and travels to the castle to close off the real estate deal for his boss back home.

The introduction of Count Orlock is legendary in cinematic history, and is still one of the best entrances for the horror villain.  Of course we see him as the carriage driver before his true reveal, hidden beneath a cloak and a hat, but once he is revealed for all to see his batlike features and sunken eyes are the things of nightmares.  Appearing from the shadows, Orlock's fingers must have been inspiration for the Alien face hugger, and his pointed ears and rat teeth make him less human and more demon.  This long early portion of the film takes place in Orlock's lair, and there is an extended sequence aboard the ship to London that is often shortened in later versions.

The scenes aboard the ship are the most iconic, with Orlock's silhouette looming atop the ship's deck as he kills the sailors to feed his bloodthirsty desires.  Despite only being on the screen for roughly nine minutes, Max Schreck burns the images of Orlock into our mind to create the first and arguably most disturbing characterization of Dracula.  Murneau took advantage of the German expressionism of the time, using sharp angles and light and shadow to convey horror in its truest form.  The film was banned in Sweden for excessive terror, a ban which made it all the way to 1972.

Director F.W. Murneau is credited as the inventor of the sunlight death for vampires.  Having already borrowed heavily from Stoker's novel, changing the names to suffice legal hurdles, Murneau implemented the sunlight as a way to kill Orlick in order to avoid further litigation from the Stoker estate.  And the production of the film was controversial in the way Schreck acted on the set; some even said Schreck himself was supernatural as he immersed himself into the character beyond what is deemed reasonable.  The film shoot was even the subject of Shadow of the Vampire, a 2000 film about the creepy involvement of Schreck and its effect on Murneau.  Nosferatu was remade in the seventies by Werner Herzog, and is definitely appreciated as a film.  But something is lost in the addition of sound and color.