Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu (1922): adapted by Henrik Galeen from Barm Stoker's Dracula; directed by F.W. Murnau; starring Max Schreck (Count Orlok), Gustav von Wangenheim (Hutter), Greta Schroder (Ellen), Gustav Botz (Professor Sievers), John Gottowt (The Paracelsian), and Alexander Granach (Knock): Ah, Nosferatu. Director F.W. Murnau and his film team adapted Bram Stoker's Dracula without paying for it. Stoker's estate successfully sued to have all copies of the film destroyed. But the film, like a vampire or Steven Seagal, turned out to be hard to kill. 

The trick is to see a decent restored version, as Nosferatu has endless, crappy, public-domain versions floating around on the Internet and on cheapo DVD's. If it's in black-and-white, it's probably crappy: Nosferatu was tinted different colours throughout. The late Nash the Slash used to tour bars with a copy of Nosferatu to accompany with electronic music. Good times!

The film itself remains the finest adaptation of Dracula, legal or otherwise, ever made. It's the sinister, otherworldly quality of Max Schreck as Count Orlok that dominates the film, and memories of that film, a triumph of make-up and silent-film acting and Murnau's compositional talents. 

Schreck looks so bafflingly inhuman that a movie was made about Schreck actually being a centuries-old vampire (Shadow of the Vampire). The Schreck vampire designs continues to pop up again and again in pop culture, whether in Werner Herzog's remake of Nosferatu, the 1970's TV adaptation of Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot, or in that episode of Angel set mostly on a submarine during WWII. 

Unless you're stoned immaculate, you'll probably want to watch Nosferatu over at least a couple of nights. The pacing is deliberate, which is to say slow and a bit scattered. But again and again visuals show up that are striking and disturbing. 

Silent film hadn't started to 'move' much in 1922, so most of the striking visuals are static. Peculiarly effective are shots of forests with the negative flipped, and pretty much any scene with Orlok in it. At times, he's a grasping shadow against a wall. In other shots, one waits in suspense for his appearance. Everybody run! Ship-board shots in which Orlok comes creeping out from hiding or rises board-straight from supine to erect still conjure a sort of abject dread.

The TCM copy I watched was extremely text-heavy -- it made me wonder if Murnau later made the almost-text-free The Last Man/ aka The Last Laugh in part as a reaction to the preponderance of explanatory intertitles required for Nosferatu. Oh, well. 

There is some humour in Nosferatu, though most of it is unintentional. The sequence following Orlok's arrival at the town he will soon start depopulating is the height of this inadvertent humour as we follow Orlok, coffin under his arm, as he searches for his new home. Funny as it is, it's still better than anything in any of Bela Lugosi's Dracula films. Highly recommended.

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