Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror
Starring Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim,
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Review by Mark Bourne
The history; or, you can't keep a good vampire down
Before jumping into discussing 1922's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror and this 2001 Image Entertainment DVD release, let's start with a little background. Nosferatu's checkered history is both worth mentioning and has a direct bearing on this new DVD release. After all, we came a rat's whisker from not having this film survive in any form, much less a new DVD.
In 1897, English author Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, the seminal horror novel that brought centuries-old European folklore into the scientific age and gave it an alarmingly effective home in a modern urban setting.
Fast-forward to Germany between the world wars, a place and time now associated with economic turmoil, ethnic tensions, Weimar decadence, bold artistic experimentation, and revolutionary leaps in new directions of thought and expression. Pioneering filmmakers, products of that environment, created works that helped invent cinema as we know it today (some of those directors later became dynamic visionaries in the U.S. film industry after the rise of Hitler). Many screen images and techniques from that era remain powerful, and not just because they were copied by Hollywood for the next 80 years: the omnisexual allure of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel; Dr. Caligari sending his Somnabulist into a dream-distorted world; Fritz Lang's stratified Metropolis and female android; the Golem presaging Frankenstein's Monster by more than a decade; and, of interest to us here, the nosferatu undead Count Orlok rising stiff as a board from his coffin, seeking prey.
Directed by German Expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau and scripted by Henrik Galeen, Nosferatu (1922) was first in the endless string of motion picture adaptations of Dracula. And like the good Count himself, it's a movie that was almost destroyed forever, a stake through its heart. It's appropriate to extend the metaphor by saying that Nosferatu itself began a tradition that's been a staple of Dracula movies since the 1930s it rose from the dead when its foes weren't looking. The stake through its nitrate heart, after all, being merely a human legal decree.
In this case, the fearless vampire killer wasn't Prof. Van Helsing, but the elderly widow of Bram Stoker. Her weapon: the copyright laws. The problem was, you see, that Murnau and company had failed to get permission from Stoker's estate to produce their film adaptation of Dracula. Florence Stoker was less concerned about revolutionary German cinematic expression and more concerned about the fact that her husband's work had been plagiarized for profit. Even though Murnau changed characters' names and other details, the resemblance to the source material was obvious. So a series of legal battles ended with victory for the Stoker estate. In 1925 a court order decreed that all prints of the film be destroyed. That decree was carried out to the extent that it could be enforced. Fortunately, a few prints that turned up in private possession in London and the U.S. escaped the rampaging barristers with torches.
Years later, the producers of Universal's Dracula with Bela Lugosi were acutely aware of the trouble Nosferatu had spawned, and therefore spent a great deal of money and effort to obtain the rights to the property which was completely unnecessary. Dracula was in the public domain in the United States, the Widow Stoker having never deposited the required two copies of the work at the U.S. Patent Office that a U.S. copyright requires. If Universal hadn't spent so much to obtain the rights to the story, maybe they would have spent a little more making the Lugosi version. With its more skillful direction, design, pacing, evocation of mood and setting, and atmosphere, it's Nosferatu that survives as the superior of the two best-known initial screen manifestations of Stoker's novel.
Over the decades, Nosferatu has been resurrected with varying qualities of print transfer, edits, musical scoring, and restoration. Unfortunately, all possible editions of it are descendants of less-than-pristine copies because no original negative survived the court battle.
Still, it has become famous as a masterpiece of its genre. Some say it remains the best vampire movie ever made and when you factor in the context of when it was created and its seminal place in fantastical cinema, not to mention the fact that it really is damn good, that's not necessarily overweening hyperbole. Pauline Kael wrote that "this first important film of the vampire genre has more spectral atmosphere, more ingenuity, and more imaginative ghoulish ghastliness than any of its successors." Werner Herzog's worthy 1979 remake with Klaus Kinski is also poetically stylish and effective, but it's Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu that remains a staple of cinephiles' "Best" lists (100 Best Horror Movies, Best Silent Films, Best German Cinema). The October 1998 issue of Premiere Magazine included Nosferatu on its list of "Rebel Cinema," or 100 Movies That Shook the World, calling it the "crowning achievement of German Expressionism: a silent horror film that actually looks and feels like a nightmare. The benchmark of bloodsuckers." It's one of the essential classics of the horror genre and of the entirety of silent film.
Now, Image Entertainment has revived the original Nosferatu again in a new Special Edition DVD incarnation. Remastered, restored, and rescored, this is arguably the finest version of Murnau's Nosferatu since its first fresh-print screening in 1922, and is possibly the best we're going to see on the commercial market for some time.
Nosferatu's Jonathan Harker character is Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), a real estate employee who receives an unusual assigment from his boss, the troll-like Knock (Alexander Granach). Knock tells Hutter that a new client, Count Orlok, wishes to leave his remote castle home and take up new lodgings nearby in fact, Knock suggests, the deserted house across the street from Hutter's would be ideal. Although we never see Knock meet Orlok in the flesh, he becomes Murnau's institutionalized, spider-eating Renfield-equivalent. Orlok's letter of intent to Knock, written in runish occult characters, and Knock's referring to Orlok as "Master" before the vampire has arrived, make it apparent that Knock is already under Orlok's influence before the events of the film even begin.
Hutter bids farewell to his wife, Ellen (Greta Schroeder), who, like Mina in Stoker's story, becomes the object of mesmeric attraction for the blood-drinking Count ("Your wife has a beautiful neck," Orlok tells Hutter, staring at a photograph). The eventual outcome of Ellen is one of the points where this movie diverts from its source.
On the road to Orlok's castle, Hutter stays the night at a rural inn. When Hutter mentions Orlok's name to the inn's patrons, the resulting reaction of shock and fear extends even to the animals outside. And that's not a Bible that Hutter finds at his bedside, but a book explaining the facts about Nosferatu, the undead. While the scene educates Hutter and us with information that will be useful later, Hutter is too sophisticated to believe such twaddle and tosses the book aside, laughing.
A carriage takes Hutter only part of the way to Orlok's castle. The driver refuses to go any farther than a small river (vampires cannot cross running water on their own). Soon, though, a coach from Orlok's castle arrives to bring Hutter to his client. Taking us from the world of the rational to that of the supernatural, this coach is no ordinary horse and driver. Riding with supernatural speed, the phantom carriage carries an unnerved Hutter through dark forests freakishly rendered using a clever negative reversal photography trick (this disc's commentary track lets you in on a nifty secret here). He is deposited at the castle and met by the Count.
The story progresses with some scenes familiar to Dracula fans (such as Hutter cutting his finger at dinner, his host a tad too interested in the resulting bloodflow), and others that abbreviate Stoker's novel for the sake of simplicity and, one presumes, an attempt at copyright avoidance. The vampire and Ellen connect psychically, which both saves Hutter's life during a terrifically creepy scene and puts her in mortal danger as the Count sets sail to become Mr. and Mrs. Hutter's new neighbor. The scenes on the "death ship" Demeter, also familiar to Stoker purists, are among the most gripping in the movie. The ship gliding ghost-like into port even after its captain and crew are dead reminds us again that the Demeter's "new captain" is something beyond nature and human ken.
In his new city teeming with potential victims, compelled by a force that may or may not be sexual toward Ellen, Orlok spreads plague and death. Inevitably, the hunter becomes the hunted, but he is only dispatched (come on, you knew he would be) by Ellen's courageous sacrifice, a victory that hangs on the fact that Hutter's wife is a "sinless maiden" (no wonder the fellow was so high-strung earlier).
Along the way, there's plenty worth looking for: Orlok stalking Hutter in his bedroom, coming through the doorway like a nightmare seducer; the Count's skeleton clock (where did he get that?); Orlok rising from his coffin on the Demeter, a visual every bit as iconic as Boris Karloff's first appearance as Frankenstein's Monster or Linda Blair's demon-driven head-twisting; the low-angle shot looking up at Orlok skulking on the deck above; the parade of coffins through the city streets; Orlok staring hungrily from his window into Hutter and Ellen's bedroom; the vampire's shadow stalking Ellen like a disembodied primal force....
Max Schreck: not just another Dracula
Of course, by far the most memorable part of this movie is the title character and the actor who plays him. Max Schreck gives the vampire a look and manner vastly different than the later romanticized Draculas that so shape our imaginings today. Whoever Orlok was before he became so tragically cursed, there seems to be little left of him now. In a scene that, like Stoker's book, welds the ancient lore of vampires onto a modern scientific context, a classroom Professor's lecture symbolically compares Orlok to carnivorous plants and insects. This is an entity more cadaver than man, a rat-faced being that evokes animal as well as human elements. Schreck's appearance and movements are unnatural in the strongest senses of the word, so Orlok projects an eerie presence that is unforgettable.
Whereas Lugosi, Lee, Langella, Oldman and so many other Draculas play the vampire as refined upper-class European nobility, Orlok's emaciated form is far larger than that he is disease, pestilence, cancer. His arrival affects not just individuals, but the entire community. What had been a serene, lyrically beautiful land is now a place of madness, starvation, and doom. It is no coincidence that swarms of rats are his familiars and his coffins are filled with earth from the graves of the Black Death. At the climax, we often see only his shadow on a wall or flowing like a black infection across Ellen's body. He is more than merely his corporeal form, and it's easy to believe that this vampire's shadow alone could waste us away.
Murnau's mastery and mesmerism
Much of Nosferatu's effectiveness comes from the sheer look of it. Like other Expressionist directors, Murnau understood the power of shadows and chiaroscuro. Darkness and light frame scenes and scene elements with great effectiveness, thus adding to the artfulness and further removing the stage-play look we see in other films from the period. Special effects, such as they are, are used sparingly and only with deliberate purpose. Murnau used techniques of positive-negative reversal, stop-motion, double exposure, and other tricks that added to the movie's effect while advancing the craft of filmmaking technique in general.
Also worth noting is the movie's visual authenticity. Nosferatu's realism was achieved largely through the then-unusual use of location filming. Unlike the stage-bound dreamscape of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, many of Nosferatu's sets are the real thing. Murnau and his producer/art director Albin Grau took their cameras and crew to the western Tatras in Slovakia (Czechoslovakia at that time). The rugged mountain region surrounding remote Orava castle, used for Orlok's lair, is desolate and Lovecraftian, befitting its distorted inhabitant. The castle and other set pieces can still be visited today, a point that one of this disc's best bonus features underlines.
Nosferatu also marks one of the earliest uses of simultaneous montage as a means of telling two parts of a story at one time while also building tension. On several occasions, intercutting of simultaneous scenes adds dimension to the story or, as with the aforementioned Professor's lecture, provides symbolic resonance. Through Murnau's editing, we see that the supernatural connection between Orlok, Ellen and Hutter is separated by great distance but not by time or love or hunger. Orlok exists above the laws of nature, Murnau shows us, and perhaps it's his presence that charges Ellen's psychic bond of love with Hutter, and through Hutter to Orlok. It is this bond that ultimately leads to the monster's destruction.
Subtext is most often in the eye of the beholder. There are those who claim that Nosferatu is "really about" Germany's fear of Eastern European immigrants, of the "vampiric menace" and "plague" represented by what could be described as Orlok's Semitic caricature features. So, did Nosferatu project the fears and prejudices that soon led to the rise of Nazism is Germany? Or is Murnau's movie merely a well-told monster story, one visualized from images out of nightmares that are universal across ideologies and social changes? I'll opt for the latter, no matter what they're teaching in film school nowadays.
Produced by the estimable film preservationist David Shepard (The Lost World, Slapstick Encyclopedia, Dr. Mabuse, The Sheik), this new DVD of Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is derived from Image Entertainment's previous Laserdisc edition. Like that version, the DVD is notable for preserving a print that mindfully reproduces the original color tinting, bringing back the hues and tones of blue, amber, and red that are vital components of Nosferatu's moody look and atmosphere.
Newly mastered from 35mm archival elements, this edition restores a number of effective establishing shots plus the movie's original running time and projection speed. Earlier editions were transferred at the "sound speed" of 24 frames per second rather than the original camera-cranking speed of 18-20 frames per second. As such, earlier editions cut the running time from this disc's 81 minutes to around 64, which resulted in a jerky, cartoonish rush that this release, we can hope, forever does away with.
The imagery is sharp and clear. The crisp transfer definition from quality source material brings back the deep black contrasts and gradients, as well as the clarity of small or distant details. This is a dramatic improvement over the washed-out, tinting-free versions that have been floating around for years.
That said, it must be noted that any surviving print of Nosferatu can only be so good. Because no original master negative was preserved, the film's genetic history is revealed in the ubiquitous scratches and blotches that still exist in this new release. It's been a long time since Nosferatu looked this good, but this new print cries out for someone to give Murnau's work a painstaking digital refinishing. Until then, this one is the keeper.
New intertitle cards replace computer-generated ones from the past, and it's obvious that they were created with an eye toward authenticity and smooth integration with the "feel" of the scenes.
Two new musical scores provide the richness of variety we've come to expect from the best restorations of silent classics. A modern score performed by the Silent Orchestra (Calos Garza "keys and knobs" and Rich O'Meara "percussion and more knobs") is delivered in Dolby Digital 5.0. This mix of tonalities blends contemporary classical, jazz, and world idioms. Albeit a tad jaunty in the early scenes of Hutter's bucolic domestic life, this score holds its own with gripping intensity once we get to Orlok's castle, especially in the scenes when the vampire is at his most menacing. The second musical score is a more traditional, though excellent, pipe organ soundtrack by Timothy Howard. While both scores were clearly composed with this cut of the film in mind, it's possible that both or neither will suit your tastes. Me, I like them both, admiring Howard's organ virtuosity while loving the hell out of what the Silent Orchestra has concocted here.
The third track is a full-length commentary (or "audio essay") by German silent film connoisseur Lokke Heiss. If academic phrases such as "Murnau has evoked a psychic continuity between the spaces" freezes you like a cobra's stare, this might not be the audio essay for you. However, the love Heiss demonstrates for this movie and every detail of its creation is infectious, and his wealth of knowledge is remarkable. Through his obsessively thorough annotations, we come closer to appreciating Murnau's command of the medium and the work that went into every shot, making Heiss' exegesis of Murnau's art and craft fascinating to those who are at home with this deep level of exploration. I can only imagine the number of college film course papers that will be cribbed from this DVD.
Another bonus is an abbreviated version of the stills gallery that appeared on the earlier Image Laserdisc release. Albin Grau's production art, costume designs and sketches are beautifully evocative on their own, and it's easy to see how Murnau was influenced by Grau's work.
A NosferaTour, narrated by Heiss, takes us on a guided tour of the production locations still standing today, with then-and-now shots that include Orlok's castle. Separated out from the commentary track is Heiss' detailed dissection of the negative-reversal coach trip scene, including a positive print of the scene that demonstrates how its unique look was achieved (and dashed clever it is too).
Two quibbles from the "Perhaps on a Future Release" department:
- This DVD maintains a cropping problem that exists on all video versions of Nosferatu that I've seen. In the scene on the Demeter when Orlok rises from his coffin, the top of his head exits out the top of the frame. I've heard that a print that doesn't do this exists, and stills that give the Count plenty of headroom are easy to find. So here's hoping for a fix in the near future.
- Also, there's another acclaimed Nosferatu musical score out there, this one by James Bernard, renowned composer for Hammer Films. It premiered in London's Royal Festival Hall in 1997 and accompanied a restoration of the film broadcast on Britain's Channel 4. It can be found on a Dolby Surround CD released by Silva Screen, with Nic Raine conducting the City of Prague Philharmonic. That too would be lovely addition to this film's next DVD incarnation.
In the meantime, this is quite likely the best edition of this silent creeper you've ever seen. And if you've never seen Nosferatu at all, there's never been a better or easier way to do it. It's absolutely worth a look (or two, or three). It's up there with The Gold Rush, Caligari, Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, or The Godfather one of the masterworks that showed us how to make movies something more than what they had been before.Mark Bourne
- Black and white with color tinting
- Silent with English intertitles
- Standard (1.33:1)
- Single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL)
- Dolby Digital 5.0, Dolby Digital Stereo
- Commentary track by German silent film connoisseur Lokke Heiss
- Production art gallery
- "Nosferatu Tour"
- Examination of the coach trip negative-reversal scene
- Liner notes, "The Controversy Behind Nosferatu"
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