Thursday, 31 October 2013

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

The original poster for nosferatu
Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)
Dir: F.W. Murnau

   Nosferatu is my favourite film of all time. Since first seeing it on DVD around 2004/5 I’ve become somewhat obsessed with it, gathering seven versions of the film on DVD* (soon to be eight with next month’s Blu-Ray release) as well as remakes, homages, graphic novel adaptations and much more. Just last week I had the pleasure of seeing the film on the big screen for the first time in a limited theatrical run to promote the Blu-Ray.
   So, with that in mind and because, as a blogger I am legally required to do a Halloween post, let’s give it a review.

   Nosferatu, for those who don’t know, is a German silent film, intended to be the first film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. However, the creators failed to obtain the rights to the novel and decided instead to change elements of the plot as well as the characters names to avoid legal troubles, thus, Jonathan Harker becomes Thomas Hutter, his wife Mina becomes Ellen and Count Dracula becomes Graf Orlok.
   The changes didn’t work though, and shortly after the release Bram Stoker’s widow took the film makers to court and won. As a result of the verdict all copies of the film had to be destroyed, though luckily several copies survived in the hands of private collectors.
    Today, both the film and the original novel have both fallen into the public domain so we are now free to enjoy the film in all its glory.

The monstrous Graf Orlok
   I adore this film. Despite its age it still holds up today and the creepy atmosphere and slow pacing still work brilliantly. The main draw is of course, Graf Orlok himself, played to perfection by Max Schreck who moves slowly and stiffly his every gesture laborious. Despite the film being silent you can almost hear the vampire’s joints creak as he stalks his prey. Unlike later incarnations of the Count, who portray him as suave and seductive, Orlok is repulsive, ugly and rat-like. He certainly looks like a centuries old creature risen from the grave and it’s a far more frightening visual to see this decaying beast enter a room than the handsome gent Dracula is so often portrayed as.
   What makes Orlok all the more interesting is how little we see him. Over the ninety minute runtime of the film, he appears on screen for just over ten minutes, yet when finishing the film, it feels as if his presence was stamped onto every frame.

   Interestingly, some elements of the Orlok character intended to differentiate him from his novel counterpart have found their way back into the Dracula mythos. The film casts Orlok as a nocturnal creature and the film’s ending sees him killed by the light of the sun. This is drastically different to the novel which sees Dracula walking around London in the sun perfectly happily, yet the idea of sun killing vampires has seeped into popular culture and today it is seen in almost all vampire media, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the Twilight saga. I’ve even seen film adaptations of Dracula that see the vampire killed off by the sun, the weakness of his “knock-off” counterpart.

Hutter and Orlok meet for the first time
   The rest of the cast are brilliant too, Gustav Von Wangenheim although prone to overacting (one of the few things that really date the film) portrays Hutter as an innocent fool, more child than man who finds his world turned upside down with his visit to Orlok’s castle.
   Greta Schroder is fantastic as the melancholic Ellen who appears almost as ghost-like as Orlok himself over the course of the film.
   All are backed up be vibrant and memorable performances by the supporting cast, including Alexander Granach’s energetic portrayal of Knock, the film’s version of Renfield.

   Aside from Orlok though, the real star are the visuals that director F.W. Murnau and his cinematographer F.A. Wagner were able to craft. The scenes in Orlok’s castle especially are wonderfully claustrophobic, the audience feels trapped in the small rooms just as Hutter is and the brilliant use of shadows make for some of cinemas most memorable scenes. Who could forget the eerie sight of Orlok’s shadow ascend the staircase and open the door to Ellen’s room?

Orlok's shadow climbs the stairs
   While Nosferatu may not frighten modern audiences as much as it did those of the past, the film still maintains a quiet, chilling atmosphere, the scary scenes are few and far between but the tension builds slowly between them. Watching this film alone is the dark is still be a haunting experience that hasn’t been dampened by the passage of time. Watching Nosferatu today is still rich and rewarding and I would encourage you to seek it out this Halloween and take the trip with Hutter, to the land of thieves and ghosts.

Happy Halloween
  *A note on the various versions of the film for those wishing to seek it out. If possible I would avoid the public domain version (the version usually found on sites like youtube). This version restores the characters names back to their Dracula counterparts, is often ran at the wrong speed (resulting in Benny Hill-a-like movement), isn’t tinted and often has scenes missing. It’s a very poor version of the film and definitely not the one you want to watch if you’re watching for the first time.

   If you want to watch the film properly the best way to do so is with the Masters of Cinema edition on DVD which presents the film as it is meant to be seen,correct tinting/intertitles/speed etc and with the original score. This is by far the best version out there, so if you’re serious about watching the film make sure it’s the one you pick up.

   Alternativly, there’s my personal favourite, the Eureka version with an electronic score by French group Art Zoyd. While the modern soundtrack may put some people off, personally I think it’s the score that best matches the visuals of the film and lends the most horror to the scenes with Orlok.

   Whatever edition you end up watching though (…but seriously, don’t watch the public domain version) I hope you enjoy it. You’re in for a treat.

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