The Masterworks of The German Horror Cinema
Featuring Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,
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American provocateur D.W. Griffith may have fashioned silent-era film into a fluid narrative medium, but it was the Germans who turned it into an art form. Their expressionist approach to cinematography and art direction transformed typically static photoplays into stark, striking battles between shadow and light a conflict perfectly suited to the context of the horror film.
Elite Entertainment's new two-disc The Masterworks of the German Horror Cinema is a great idea, packaging three of Germany's best and most famous silent fright movies in a set "dedicated to restoring and preserving our national and international motion picture film heritage." But the result is far from a masterwork itself. Elite delivers a bewilderingly non-comprehensive box set, displaying a disappointing lack of care and honesty for a product aimed at serious collectors. Despite the quality of the individual films involved, this set falls seriously short of collectors' standards, especially at collectors' prices.
Headlining the triptych is F.W. Murnau's excellent 1922 vampire drama Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, perhaps the most famous European horror film of its time. Nosferatu transplants Bram Stoker's Dracula from London to Bremen (but stayed faithful enough to Stoker's plot to provoke a successful lawsuit from the author's widow and the subsequent destruction of most prints of the film). A young real estate agent travels to deepest Carpathia to finalize a deal with a mysterious nocturnal Count. After snacking on the young man's blood, the Count becomes enamored with a photograph of the agent's fianc»e, and travels to Bremen to pursue her, bringing a deadly plague along for the ride.
Murnau, who was also responsible for the beautiful 1927 romance Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, creates a series of indelible, masterful images, the most famous of which is the vampire Nosferatu himself. Played by Max Schreck, Nosferatu's misshapen, sloping bald head, arching eyebrows, long hook nose, and crooked rabbit fangs makes for as monstrous an image as any in the pantheon of film. It's also, incidentally, disturbingly similar to caricatures of Jews found in contemporary European newspapers, raising speculation that Murnau's film was really an anti-Semitic allegory for the spread of the "Jewish plague." Nevertheless, Nosferatu is a frightening character, and Murnau's carefully crafted images of the Count rising supernaturally from his coffin, leering at his prey from a window, and finally dissolving in the harsh sunlight, are still-effective instances of early movie magic.
Purists might protest the Draculazation of the title cards, on which the character names have been changed from screenwriter Henrik Galeen's Germanic character names to match those of Stoker's novel (Nosferatu, for example, is referred to as Count Dracula, and not Count Orlok). Also unfortunate is the new experimental jazz score by Peter Schirmann, which is only occasionally appropriate but frequently distracting and/or lame.
Elite's transfer is great-looking, but far from complete. At 64 minutes, this Nosferatu matches the running time of the original U.S. release. But in the 78 years since, the classic has been re-issued in far more comprehensive cuts, including a 94-minute print shown at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. Shamefully, Elite's own marketing materials (save for the packaging) and subsequently many online retailers claim this DVD version runs 94 minutes, a full half-hour longer than in actuality.
Elite's set also features a cult favorite of silent cinema, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The plotting of this twisted psychological yarn about a carnival mountebank and the somnambulist (sleepwalker) who carries out his evil deeds is as incoherent and ridiculous as it is odd and intriguing. The film's stunning expressionist set designs, however, are a creative wonder, full of jagged miniatures and sharp, distorted angles, creating an atmosphere as treacherous and insane as the motives explored within. It's also interesting to note that the somnambulist Cesare, prancing like an undead mime in his black tights, is played by Conrad Viedt, who would gain notoriety 20 years later as General Strasser in Casablanca.
Here the transfer is so-so, with overblown contrast and the frame scaled too large to fit within a standard television screen. Also, the movie only runs 51 minutes at sound speed, considerably shorter than Elite's advertised 90 minutes.
The third film is less famous, but the only one shown intact indeed with restored footage and provides many of this collection's most intriguing moments. Der Golem is a 1915 monster movie directed by Nosferatu screenwriter Henrik Galeen and based on Jewish folklore. In 16th century Prague a Rabbi summons the powers of darkness and creates a subservient clay giant (Paul Wegener, who co-wrote with Galeen) to protect his ghetto from gentile hostilities. As often happens in such cases, the monster is carelessly maintained, escapes from its master's control, and wreaks terror on those it was meant to protect.
Der Golem, while not as visually creative as either Nosferatu or Caligari, has the most solid narrative, an absolutely frightening sorcery sequence, and the most curious subtext. It's a German film about persecuted Jews from a heavily anti-Semitic time, but while it depicts the Rabbi as a wild-eyed mystic dabbling in astrology and black magic, it also ends kindly for its Jewish protagonists.
Der Golem looks fine, if contrasty, for a 75-year-old film, and although advertised by Elite as an 80-minute feature (what were they smoking?), its actual 67 minutes beats most sources' reported duration of 60 minutes. Despite the lack of musical accompaniment, which can easily challenge the attention span of the modern audience, it's a satisfying entertainment for any serious film buff.
Elite includes little in the way of supplementary materials to tie these three artifacts together. Each film is accompanied by a small video-scrapbook of related art and stills, and the set also includes a brief but inconsequential clip from Genuine, a German vampire film from 1920.
Although this is your only chance to see Der Golem on disc, it should be noted that far more definitive versions of Nosferatu and Caligari were released by Image in 1997. Both Image releases include original tints, new recordings of traditional scores, and commentary tracks by noted film historians. Image's Nosferatu runs 81 minutes. Their Caligari runs 75 and also includes an excerpt from Genuine.
All films are presented in 1.33:1, but often the image extends beyond the edges of the TV screen. Keep case.
Gregory P. Dorr
- Black and White
- Standard (1.33:1)
- 2 double-sided, single-layered discs (SS-SL)
- Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari feature Dolby Digital 2.0 musical scores. Der Golem is silent.
- Extensive liner notes
- Still galleries including original poster art and lobby cards.
Get it at Reel.com
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