Friday, 2 October 2015

October Nightmares #2: Nosferatu - Public Domain Version (1922)

The term 'German expressionism' is one that tends to get thrown around by wanky film critics, all of whom rarely deign to define it for the layman. German Expressionism could very well be a genteelism for Fascist Germany's fanatical approach to racial purity. It isn't. But we'd all feel ashamed if it were. Expressionism, in fact, refers a modernist movement of the early twentieth century, which sort to depict the stark aspects of life through symbolic, surreal imagery. Germany, a key originator of the movement, was responsible for some of the first Expressionist films; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Phantom, The Golem, and Nosferatu. One only has to watch said films to identify the cinematic movement's key features: unrealistic architecture, unusual geometry, the interplay of light and shadow. See guys, it's not that difficult to explain.

Nosferatu is perhaps the best known of the German expressionist films, and certainly my favourite. Ostensibly an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Gothic horror novel, Dracula (1897), Nosferatu follows the same tightly wound plot as the novel, featuring a young solicitor at the mercy of his dangerous client, Count Orlok. As in the original text, Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is held captive by his mysterious host, who like every overbearing mother feeds him and prevents him from talking to strange girls. You may have noticed that I used the word ostensibly earlier in the paragraph, and there's a good reason for that. The studio, Prana Film, didn't bother to obtain the rights to Stoker's novel; instead opting for the flimsy comedy disguise route, by changing the characters' names. This led to all but one print of the film being destroyed after Stoker's widow, Florence Balcombe, filed for copyright infringement.

Several versions of the film exist today, but the one I'm particularly interested in is the public domain version. Nosferatu is an old movie, 93 years old to be precise. Watching the original cut, consequently, makes for a haunting experience. Like cupcakes intended for a bake sale cooling on a worktop, it's something I can't quite grasp. Between the grim monochrome cinematography and lack of sound other than music, there's something truly otherworldly about the experience. Some scenes are almost entirely quiet, save for the crackling of the film, placing strange emphasis on the actors' movements. The off-kilter vibe plays into the expressionist creed of distorting the perception of reality. This must be how Tumblr works.

What makes the public domain version truly stand out is the score. Working out which score is 'definitive' is a Herculean task, as there is an abundance of alternative scores out there. I tried asking for information online but all I got back was hate mail and cat pictures.  The 2005 Luciano BerriatĂșa restoration features a soundtrack that is a recreation of Hans Erdmann's original, and feels suitably epic and sweeping. But the public domain film has a genuinely nightmarish soundtrack, one which seems in equal parts impish, ethereal and feverishly phantasmagoric. It serves the perfect compliment to Friedrich Murnau's dreamlike direction. Shots are centred to utilize the magnificent Gothic architecture as a frame around the characters. Stormy seas, sprawling woods, and ominous mountains lend a magical quality to proceedings.

As was the case with Night of the Demon, Nosferatu utilises simple set pieces and subtle horror  to establish the appropriate mood effectively. Murnau uses lighting to powerful effect, with the iconic scene of Count Orlok's silhouette slowly creeping up the stairs serving to highlight this. Max Schreck delivers an incredible performance as the titular vampire. Long before I had ever even actually seen the movie, I knew who Orlok was. He was this icon who appeared in the Fast Show. In Spongebob Squarepants. Spongebob fucking Squarepants! And he always scared the pants off me. An eccentric figure with a repulsive appearance and inhuman mannerisms. I'd argue Schreck portrays the definitive vampire, a creature that has cast off its outer human shell but still feels rooted in the real world. His interest in Thomas' wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) suggests a lonely individual, but Murnau doesn't make the mistake his successors with come to make. He doesn't romanticise the vampire. This is the vampire before it was ruined by the advent of Banana Republic.

The only thing I truly disliked about the movie is the ending. It centres around Ellen's plan to defeat Count Orlok by distracting him with her beauty until sunrise. What kind of cockamamie is that? It is a little disconcerting to know that the Lord of the Undead can be distracted by something as trivial as an episode of Next Top Model. The movie does attempt to justify this by having Ellen learn from a book about vampire mythology. Personally I would have been more disposed to it being a moment of idiocy, a character flaw if you will. Murnau could have directed the first horror movie with a stupid character. But as it stands the old book of mythology is to blame. Wait a minute. Is someone blindly following the dumb advice of an old mystic book, leading to disastrous consequences for all? Stop the presses!