Saturday, October 23, 2010

Nosferatu

The 1922 vampire film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is among the first feature-length horror movies to be made and the very first vampire movie.  That subtitle is telling about this film's intent.  It's not just a song of terror, or a hint of terror, it is a symphony of terror. Well, I guess subtlety is not going to be an option.  That makes sense, since this is a silent film that was made in Germany; silent films required actors to wear heavy makeup and make broad theater-style gestures to convey the story, and I don't think I've seen a German film that was anything less than bizarre.  So, grab your french horn and let's see what this symphony has to offer.

Thomas Hutter, a young German man, is sent to Transylvania by his employer to meet a new client, Count Orlock (Max Schreck).  Thomas leaves his wife, Ellen, with his friends and heads off for scenic Transylvania.  I like that he drops off his wife with friends like I would drop off a pet; "make sure to feed her at least once a day."  On the way, Thomas stops by an inn for a bite to eat (see what I did there?  Clever boy!) and finds that the inn goes silent with the mention of Orlock's name.  The locals convince Thomas to not continue to the castle at night because there is a werewolf on the prowl.  Seriously?  The first vampire movie mentions werewolves as factual creatures?  Against all horror movie odds, Thomas listens and spends the night.  In his room, he finds a small book titled The Book of Vampires, which offers some nice little tidbits about Nosferatu, the "bird of death."  Well, Thomas eventually makes it to Orlock's castle and meets the Count, who appears to be both fashion-challenged and ugly.  Thomas is trying to sell some property (coincidentally, right across the street from his own home) to Orlock, but the conversation gets derailed when Thomas nicks his finger with a knife; Orlock more or less pounces on the finger, trying to lick it clean.  Understandably, Thomas is grossed out by that awkward moment.  As time goes on, Thomas becomes convinced that Orlock is, in fact, a "bird of death."  Why?  Oh, little clues begin to add up; Thomas wakes to find small puncture wounds in his neck, Orlock sleeps in a casket, etc.  The Count finds a picture of Ellen among Thomas' belongings and becomes enamored; he tries to lock Thomas up in his castle while he travels via boat for Germany.  From that point on, it is a race to see whether Orlock will have his bird-like way with her, or if Thomas will be able to save the day.

That story might seem familiar to you, and with good reason.  The writers wanted to do a vampire story, but did not want to have to pay for the film rights to Bram Stoker's Dracula.  Their clever solution was to change all the characters' names (Orlock = Dracula, for instance), switch "vampire" to "nosferatu" (although I don't know why they used a book called The Book of Vampires), and edit out the Van Helsing character.  The result was a film that clearly didn't owe anything to anyone, especially the Stoker family.  Except for the Stoker family, actually.  The German production company behind Nosferatu declared bankruptcy in order to avoid being sued by Stoker's widow; with business practices like that, it isn't surprising that Nosferatu was the company's only film.  One thing that the writer added that was not derivative was the idea of sunlight being harmful to vampires; this trait is now nearly universal in vampire lore.

It's tough to critique silent films by modern day standards.  This film was made almost ninety years ago and a few things have changed since then, to put it mildly.  Even by today's standards, the film style used by director FW Murnau was very good.  I haven't seen many silent films, but I thought the use of sepia tones for daylight scenes and bluish tones for the evening scenes was clever.  I had just assumed that black and white pictures were always...well, black and white.  The scenes without Count Orlock have become pretty dated; the heavy make-up and theater-style big hand movements look kind of silly now.  The shots of Orlock, though, still pack some visual punch.
The ugliest member of Sgt. Pepper's band was not, in fact Ringo.
The combination of Murnau's frame composition (often with very dark, tall backgrounds) and Max Schreck's awkward movements really made Orlock's character seem otherworldly.  I also felt that Orlock's proportions were odd, too, with absurdly long arms and legs.

Orlock is the reason people still remember this film and why is is always on the "best of" lists for hoity-toighty critics.  This film created the nosferatu style of vampirism that is still seen in films to this day (30 Days of Night, Daybreakers, etc.).  It is often regarded (seemingly without irony) that Nosferatu is the film adaptation that stays truest to Stoker's novel, too.  From a film historian standpoint, this movie really stands the test of time.  You can even argue that no one has ever surpassed Schreck's visual appeal as a vampire.

I am not a film historian, though.  I like to think of myself as a film aficionado, or even a student, but I don't feel the need to justify myself through historical context.  While I'm glad that I took the time to watch this movie, I didn't really enjoy it much.  My intellectual side noted a lot of technical things that I appreciated, but I had a hard time getting into the film.  I can tell that this movie was made (probably) flawlessly in 1922, but the gap in time and the difference in German and American storytelling sensibilities made this more of an educational experience than a recreational one.  Nevertheless, there are some great visuals in the movie and it deserves its place in film history for such enduring material.  And Count Orlock looked pretty awesome, which still counts for something.

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