Thursday, August 26, 2004
The movie Nosferatu (1922) is Goethe Institut's last silent film offering in their Movies Live series of classic silent movies. Predictably enough a huge crowd of people lined up to watch this movie not because it's the last movie in the series but rather to get the chance to watch the first vampire flm ever made on the big screen. The timing couldn't be more tragic because, personally, the past two films before this were a lot more interesting than this in terms of storytelling. I won't dwell on the story this time (Bob Bankard of PhillyBurbs.com did a great job on that one) but rather on the interesting stories connected to the production of the film and the technical innovations that Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau did to turn Hollywood's attention to him. At a time when when shooting movies inside a studio lot built with lavish sets was the norm, the ever experimental director found a way around the budget restrictions preventing him from building the needed sets by taking his camera and his crew on location to the mountains of Carpathia (specifically Slovakia where a real castle was used). He also employed the locals to appear in his film along with the real actors, the irony of which the locals put in a more believable enactment than the lead actor Gustav von Wangenheim who was a complete and total ham. To create the special effects needed to bring a feeling of dread inside the "Land of the Phantoms," Murnau resorted to one crank/one frame camera technique to produce a jerky animation effect. The result is similar to using stop-motion animation effects. Also due to the limitations of light sources which prevents them from shooting at night, Director F. W. Murnau experimented with reversing the film to show the negative side instead of the usual positive. In doing so they could continue shooting the film in broad daylight without hampering the schedule (in the process they also painted the Orlok's black carriage white). It's also interesting to note that his initial experimentation with a dream-like quality in the film would later be perfected when he created one of the greatest examples of expressionist films, The Last Laugh (produced by UFA). Another stroke of genius in this film was the idea for the vampire as portrayed by Max Schreck. The appearance is a far cry from those popularized by Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and, more recently, Gary Oldman. Murnau's Count Graf Orlock resembles a "shaved, cadaverous rat" with long bony fingers and creepy stare. This was more of a deliberate act on the part of the director who sought to identify his vampire with rats rather than bats and wolves:
"Murnau draws from a history that links Vampires to unexplained deaths. The term, Nosferatu, is of modern origin and derives from the Slavic "nosufur-atu" which is a derivation of the Greek "nosophoros" or "plague carrier." The understanding that rat-borne illnesses were the cause of many plagues dominated scientific thinking in recent centuries. While in earlier times many unexplained deaths fueled a developing culture of Vampirism and the concept of the "un-dead" in Europe." *
Speaking of the actor, an interesting story arose regarding his surname, which means "terror" in German, that for years people thought it was too much of a coincidence and that another popular German actor named Alfred Abel (the lead actor in Murnau's future hit "Metropolis") used a pseudonym. But after much research it was found out that it was the good actor's real name and it wasn't something the production crew came up with for the said film.
Those were the good stuff, but no matter how much technical magic Murnau conjures up to try to save the film the story suffers a great deal from producer and art director Albin Grau's story treatment. Apparently Grau was something of a der Vollidiot for basing his story almost entirely on Bram Stoker's famous novel and passing it as his own. When the author's widow, Florence Stoker, got wind of the appaling similarities between this movie and her late husband's work she sued the production company for royalties with the help of the British Incorporated Society of Authors. But since the production company which Grau headed had fallen into bankruptcy they failed to come up with the needed amount to pay for the royalty. The incensed Mrs. Stoker demanded that the original prints of the film be destroyed (you can read the other details of this sordid tale here). Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on whose side you're on) extant copies of the film began surfacing in England and France after Mrs. Stoker's death. Some of these were turned over to Universal Studios who acquired the film rights to the novel in 1928. The movie never did enjoyed its earlier success as no major movie studio became interested in showing in major theaters throughout the country and all limited film showings were always done under the auspices of a film society.
And that's about it, might I also mention that the entire dialogue was written in German so the head of the Goethe Institut tried some method voice acting while reading it to the audience. Music was provided by the jazz band Garlic which was a really bad move, their music almost put me to sleep.
References include - Silents Are Golden: Nosferatu page. * Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, and Movie Diva.