Saturday, 2 January 2016

German Expressionism: NOSFERATU (1922)

NOSFERATU (1922). F.W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU, EINE SYMPHONIE DES GRAUENS (‘A Symphony of Horror’) is probably the most famous character and film of the Expressionist period. Murnau wanted to adapt Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, but on discovering how much gaining the official rights would take from his budget and box-office, NOSFERATU was altogether too ‘freely adapted’ by Henrik Galleen from the text without permission. As a result, Stoker’s widow successfully sued to have all copies of the film destroyed. Thankfully, due to the passion of film fans, enough prints survived to be preserved for posterity.

Murnau’s stunning tribute to Stoker is structured in five acts, set in Wisborg, Germany and begins by introducing the upbeat young lead Hutter, a pleasingly breezy optimist (Gustav Von Wangenheim) and his more cautiously smart wife Ellen played by Greta Schröder. (These are effectively the Jonathan and Mina Harker of Dracula). On the way to work, Hutter runs into a friend who remarks with notable foreshadowing that “No-one outruns his destiny!” Our hero works for property agent Knock (Alexander Granach), a colourful cuckoo with the bald head, side tufts and eccentric demeanour of a mad scientist. He’s also a trifle sneaky as shown when he sends Hutter to negotiate the sale of a local home for a new client, Count Orlok. He figures they can palm off the Count with the large, dilapated house opposite Hutter’s. Knock adds some unconscious foreshadowing of his own by saying that it may cost them a little sweat “…and a little blood”.

Soon, Hutter is packed off to ‘the land of the Spectres’ in Carpathia to settle the deal with their client. It seems the Count’s reputation with the locals chillingly precedes him as evinced by their sudden abrupt silence in the tavern when Hutter announces his destination. They try to warn the young traveller about werewolves on the road. Staying the night, he skims through some comforting bed-time reading, a handy old tome called ‘Of Vampyres, Gastlie spirits and the Seven Deadly Sins’ which warn of a vampire that feeds on the blood of humans and lives in coffins of ungodly earth. Hutter shrugs off such fantastical flights of fancy and gets a good night’s sleep.

The next morning, Hutter’s coach trip to the Castle is cut short when the coachmen refuse to go right to the door. No matter; our sunny hero carts his own gear up the hill whereupon he is met by another carriage from the castle. This driver who offers to take him is a beady-eyed, beak-nosed curiosity whose full face is bundled up. They ride the rest of the way in comic speeded-up footage till the driver points dramatically to the mosquito-blown turret of Castle Orlok. He reveals that he is actually Orlok and admonishes Hutter for tardiness.

Act II allows Hutter and us to get our first good look at Orlok close-up. Max Schreck is a magnificently weird spectacle in the part. The aforementioned nose and eyes are augmented by the skin-crawling addition of two long, needle-sharp, thin front teeth, pointed ears, overgrown eyebrows and a rake-thin physique amplified by a long, close-cut coat. (This superb make-up has been imitated often ever since, most clearly for vampire Kurt Barlow in SALEM’S LOT). Schreck inhabits Orlok with a marvellously sustained hypnotic focus. Allegedly, the actor put himself into a form of trance when acting his scenes. His behaviour is unsettlingly eerie throughout the film, such as when Hutter sustains a thumb knife-cut during dinner. “You have hurt yourself….Precious blood” sympathises the Count a little over-solicitously. He also lets slip a disturbing enthusiasm later when appreciating Ellen’s photo: “Your wife has a lovely neck”.
Hutter awakes the next day to find two small puncture marks on his neck. Any passing concern evaporates at the sight of a hearty breakfast, after which he pens a letter to Ellen recounting the marks and the heavy dreams the castle gives him. “Fear not” he assures her brightly, though as the less obtuse one in the marriage she is bound to do exactly that on reading this. Speaking of shrewder folk, Orlok demonstrates he’s no fool either. On signing the contract, he tells Hutter he looks forward to “that fine, deserted house opposite yours”.

Hutter’s dense naivete at last shatters as he finally understands all the hints he’s been getting that his host is actually Nosferatu the vampire. He is almost a victim as Schreck’s ghostly nocturnal walk nearly captures him, (the vampire’s hands held eerily to his side is a nice touch to emphasise Schreck’s thin frame) and in the day-time opens his coffin to see Nosferatu sleeping under shredded timber. As if that isn’t enough, through an upstairs window he sees the Count in more oddly funny speeded-up film assembling his coffins and climbing in ready for shipment. Hutter escapes his room by climbing down knotted bed-sheets, while raftsmen sail Nosferatu’s coffins to board the good ship Empresa.

ACT III starts with our hero in hospital raving about coffins as Nosferatu’s vessel prepares to sail for Wisburg with its monstrous cargo. The crew think nothing strange about the ship’s manifest itemising multiple caskets of earth for “experimental purposes”, blissfully unaware that they will shortly be guinea pigs themselves. Back in Wisburg, Hutter’s friend Professor Bulwer savours the predatory machinations of a Venus Fly-trap (that ole foreshadowing again), while Knock languishes in an asylum ward. He has now become Stoker’s Renfield from Dracula, a drooling fly-catching servant of Nosferatu; not a long trip as Knock, like Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING, weakens his impact by being gloriously semi-nuts from the start. Ellen has now read Hutter’s letter and sure enough has connected the details with her fears of impending doom much faster than he.

Meanwhile, on board ship, while plague-rats roam Nosferatu has drained all but the Captain and ship’s mate of blood. By the look of the rampant sideburns on the Captain, he’s more in danger of lycanthropy than vampirism. Below decks, the mate is greeted by the infamous much-used shot of Nosferatu suddenly raised up to greet him, his ramrod-straight posture like an unearthly lever. (This was achieved deceptively simply by lifting Schreck on a plank but the result is hugely effective)  Nosferatu stalks the mate above-decks in a terrific shot taken from under the hatch but his prey throws himself overboard, leaving the Captain to lash himself to the wheel. As the vampire’s shadow falls across him, the intertitle proclaims:  “The ship of death had acquired a new captain”.

In Act IV, by now Ellen, like Knock, shows symptoms of being remote-controlled by Nosferatu, craving to go to her master. Knock himself reaches up from his cell to see the vampire ship approaching. This is his cue to overpower his guard and exit. Nosferatu carries his coffin single-handedly from the ship while Hutter returns to his beloved. “All’s well now”, he assures her, proving once again that she is the more prescient partner even when delirious. Investigation of the derelict ship’s logbook reveals a ten-day account of its crew’s gradual demise. However, the town elders mistake the contents for a plague warning and issue a proclamation to minimise the infection spread.
The final act begins tragically with crosses chalked on the doors of Wisburg’s plague-infected homes. Hutter warns Ellen not to read his grisly book. True to form, she astutely ignores him and extracts from it the vital knowledge that a vampire can be defeated by the sacrificing of blood by “a maiden wholly without sin”. Only then can he be mesmerised enough to be burned by the rays of the sun.

In the climax, Murnau and acclaimed cameraman Fritz Arno Wagner (who also lensed DESTINY) create even more fabulous shots to showcase Schreck’s ghostly presence, especially using the power of shadow. Firstly, he is framed at a window, urging Ellen to open a window and admit him (a nod to received vampire lore). Then after she leaves herself vulnerable by sending her husband away on a ruse to fetch the Professor, he mounts the staircase to her, his hunched macabre shadow spilling up the wall. One of my favourite images in the history of horror cinema is the beautifully staged creeping of his shadowy arm across her chest and the stark Expressionist possession of his fist clenching over her heart. It is erotic, passionate, overwhelming and elegantly tasteful in its symbolism. 

Ellen is so alluring that Nosferatu doesn’t notice the fateful cock-crow heralding the dawn as presaged by the book. He reaches out to no avail and as the sun comes up, he vaporises. Such is Schreck’s physical sensitivity as an actor that we cannot resist a tinge of sympathy for him as he dies, a feeling that all great monsters of the genre conjure in us. The death of Nosferatu severs his dreadful bond with Knock who expires; more poignantly Hutter and his friends find it has also taken the life of Ellen – a touching and heroic ending.

One of the surprises of re-watching NOSFERATU is the extraordinary impact that Schreck’s title character has in return for so little screen time. It’s a testament to the combined talents of he, Murnau and Wagner (in composing his remarkable appearances) that he’s shown for probably no more than around five minutes in total and yet his presence is indelible as one of the formative horror icons.

The lush swirling score is an additional bonus on the Bluray, as much a loving restoration as the physical print from 2006 in this terrific ‘Masters of Cinema’ release.

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