Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Nosferatu - Eine Symphonie des Grauens
I had always meant to watch "Nosferatu - Eine Symphonie des Grauens" (a symphony of horror), but somehow never did, until last night - on YouTube. I'm glad I waited this long because had I not, I wouldn't have thought to seek out the beautifully restored version of it that I watched. I can now understand why, in 1922 - *ninety years* ago - the "Schweizer Illustrierte Kino Woche" wrote that "Nosferatu"'s beguiling power caused those who watched it in theatres to forget they were there until the lights came on.
The premiere of "Nosferatu" was at a time when the horrors of the First World War still lived in the minds of all Germans. Millions of their soldiers had fallen, either killed or wounded. On every street corner, pedestrians were accosted by crippled former soldiers begging for alms. It was also the time when millions were dying from the Spanish Flu that was raging through Europe.
The producer of "Nosferatu", Albin Grau, said that the figure of Nosferatu helped him understand the horror story that was the First World War. In the way it sucked in and destroyed all who got near it, it was like a cosmic vampire.
The story of Nosferatu was based on Bram Stoker's "Dracula", a novel that had fascinated Albin Grau. However he hadn't found it particularly strange, for, when serving in the war, he had met a Serbian farmer who told him about his father. The father had died and been buried with no churchly sacraments. Thereafter he was seen by many, an undead being who seemed to be seeking a true and final resting place.
As a result of these sightings, the body was exhumed some months later. It was still in the coffin, but looked like it had only just died. Two preternaturally long and sharp teeth protruded from its mouth. It was decided it would be best to hammer a wooden stake into its chest, so it would pierce the heart. This was done. The undead being was seen no more.
After reading "Dracula" and hearing about the Serbian farmer's father, Albin Grau wasted no time in forming a company, Prana-Film, for the sole purpose of producing "Nosferatu". To be the film's director he chose the then up-and-coming Wilhelm Murnau, whose work on "Nosferatu" is still looked upon today as trail-blazing.
Despite most films then (in 1922) being filmed entirely on a studio set, "Nosferatu" was shot "on location" - the locations being the Carpathian mountains, and the medieval town of Arwaburg, and an old church in Wismar, and the salt silos of Lübeck.
The better to create a truly eerie atmosphere, the director and cameramen experimented with light and shadow - particularly light and shadow on the faces of the actors, so that the malevolent eyes of the Nosferatu could seem the deeper in his massive skull.
There is the now-renowned scene where the Nosferatu in the wee hours has infiltrated the Hutter's home. You can see only his shadow as he creeps up the stairs and into the bedroom where the defenceless Ellen Hutter lies in her bed. You see only the huge shadow of his unnaturally long fingers with their unnaturally long nails as they reach for Ellen's neck.
One of the odder things about "Nosferatu" was the name of the lead actor, Max Schreck, for the German word "Schreck" means "terror" or "fright". Was it only a stage-name? It turned out it wasn't, and that Schreck was his real name. This, plus how convincingly Max Schreck played the vampire, caused some serious film critics to ask whether Schreck wasn't, himself, an actual vampire.
So enthusiastic was Albin Grau to make "Nosferatu" that he went ahead despite not getting the film-rights to the story. Because the plot of "Nosferatu" was so like that of "Dracula", Bram Stoker's widow successfully got a court-order that all film-copies of "Nosferatu" be destroyed. And they were, but only in Germany, for the reach of German justice didn't extend beyond Germany's borders.
There was already a film-copy of "Nosferatu" in France and one in America, which is the only reason you can still enjoy "Nosferatu", and see it for one of the masterworks of German Expressionism which it is.
If there aren't vampires really, what about that there are other-worldly beings that, like vampires, come out in the dead of night and disappear when dawn comes?
Think about the Nightmare, which you only get in the dead of night. However, when dawn begins to break, you need no longer worry about the Nightmare......well......at least not for another twenty-four hours.
How about that the atmosphere in the dead of night has properties that lower your psychic defenses, making it easier for malevolent beings from a parallel world or another dimension, to invade your mind when you are asleep? But, when dawn comes, these atmospheric properties change, and these other-worldly beings have to go back from whence they came? Isn't this as plausible a cause of the Nightmare, as what the men of science tell you?
If you are at least half interested in the history of cinema, you owe it to yourself to watch "Nosferatu" if you haven't yet, and particularly the wonderfully restored and re-mastered version that I last night watched, and which you can too if you *click here*.
As you watch, and you forget where you are as much as did those watchers whom the "Schweizer Illustrierte Kino Woche" wrote of those ninety years ago, ask yourself whether a silent film with its intertitles and atmospheric music, isn't superior in conveying a good story on film, to your normal sound film.