Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"In The Beginning There Was Only Darkness...."

How do you approach something like Nosferatu? Just where do you begin? There are points aesthetic and historical to be made about the movie, books to be made about its journey from novel to the eyes of modern viewers (2010 as of this writing), essays to be written on every film it’s influenced since its stifled release in 1922, etc. Shall I say that the film is still, 88 years after shooting wrapped, thought of as among the vanguard of best films? Needless to say it is considered a classic, if not the classic horror film. Based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, on whom more later, the story follows a man and his bride confronted with insurmountable obstacles in the way of their happiness among them the plague, a rather nasty career turn and a loveless vampire called Orlok. All the names from the corresponding story had been changed to avoid the law coming down on the filmmaker's head. It wasn’t the first horror film nor the first art film (Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the first Art Film by any reasonable definition and was the most important horror film of its day, though there were precedents) though it was the first important, feature-length vampire movie and also I believe the first terror film, that is, the first film that treated its audience with real savagery. For this reason, and because of its refusal to fall down explaining itself, Nosferatu can not only entertain and captivate, it can still give nightmares to the uninitiated viewer.

by F.W. Murnau
Hutter, a young real estate clerk, is ordered by his maniacal boss Knock to close a deal on the property directly across from the young man’s own. The buyer, one Count Orlok, wants to close the deal in a hurry and in person so Hutter must say goodbye to his beloved Ellen (depending on where you look, they’re married but in Stoker’s novel they are not; her last name is never given, they sleep in separate bedrooms, the year is 1838…I honestly don’t know) and head off to Orlok’s castle. She is less than thrilled when he tells her that he’s off “to the land of thieves and phantoms” looking like a pig in mud. It’s almost touching the readiness with which he runs off to earn money for the two of them and for that I forgive his refusal to see danger a mile off. The land surrounding Orlok’s castle is inhabited by gypsies and peasants who are all too aware and frightened of the count. The owner and staff at the inn where he stays the night before his ride to the castle is the definition of foreshadowing. They advise Hutter to stay away, implore him even, but he won’t hear of it. That night he finds a book on vampires in his room, left there anonymously by someone with access to his room. He flips through it but dismisses it as superstition and goes to bed with no problem. The carriage the next day won’t even take him all the way through the pass as the driver fears what lies beyond. He waits moments only before a creepy carriage arrives with a hideous driver to take him the rest of the way.

Curiously, when Orlok himself shows up, he looks exactly like the driver. The man is…well frightening doesn’t do it. Though Bela Lugosi’s turn as Dracula became what most people picture when vampires are brought up (or he was before 2007), Max Schreck’s heinous appearance better captures the soul and viciousness of the historical vampire. Try though he might to appear a gallant host, Orlok is transparently a monster, which is how it should be. After a most awkward dinner where the real estate is discussed, Hutter passes out drunk and wakes up with what modern audiences will recognize as the bite marks of the vampire but our man has never read Stoker and believes it to be two mosquito bites due to the insect’s abundance on the grounds. He writes a letter to Ellen about his journey and gives it to a passing horseman (who is quite literally the only part of the story I don’t buy. If the natives live in fear of Orlok, why would this fellow ride past so flagrantly, even if he knew that the count slept by day, which presumably no one does) and then waits for nightfall. The count explains to his guest that he sleeps by day and looking at him it’s plain that he had to have some eccentricities and Hutter thinks nothing of this until the following night when they finalize the sale of the home. Between the count’s leaping at the young realtor cutting himself with a bread knife and crying about “the precious blood” and his eye’s bugging out of his head when he gets a look at Ellen’s picture, Hutter has enough reason to fear his host.
At this juncture it becomes clear that though she is miles away from him, Ellen senses that Hutter is in trouble. That night when Orlok makes his last appearance to Hutter, all semblance of humanity is gone. In fact the only thing that stops him from doing any harm to the young man is that in a trance-like state Ellen calls out to him. Her call reaches not Hutter but the vampire, who turns and leaves. He knows now that he’s wasted his time and his true calling is across the sea. The next morning Hutter finds the count asleep in a crate, though he doesn’t know it, the count is preparing himself for a journey. That night Orlok puts himself in a crate of dirt post-marked for his new home and leaves Hutter stranded at his castle. Orlok’s crates are put on the ship Empusa but by the time it reaches port in Orlok’s adopted home, the only living thing on the ship are plague rats; stowaways from Orlok’s boxes of dirt. When Hutter finally reaches his home, he arrives to a paranoid wife, a town dying of the plague, a maniacal Knock causing pandemonium under the sway of the vampire, and of course Orlok himself who seems to be orchestrating all the death and chaos from the vampire’s new home right across from his own.

It really is a shame that so much of American society has such a vehement aversion to all things antique and strange. I mean the internet alone is evidence that there are freaks who do things differently and appreciate the macabre, sure, but the overwhelming majority do things like vote republican, buy Scarface t-shirts and watch shows about vacuous twenty-somethings living engineered lives. My point is its hard to get the-man-on-the-street™ to appraise a silent movie. And don’t tell me I can’t make judgments like that because I hasten to remind you that I’m in film school and kids in classes dedicated to the very thing they’re paying to learn about (film production, theatre, screenwriting) still bitch about films being in black & white, having subtitles or being even faintly avant-garde. The reason that this judgment figures into Nosferatu is that vampires will probably always belong to the romantic heels that populate big screen adaptations of famous novels on the subject. Beyond the obvious superiority of Schreck’s performance over Lugosi’s in Dracula, Nosferatu is far and away the more interesting and better made of the two films. And Murnau’s movie becomes even more impressive when you consider that it was made on the cheap.

Murnau had started his production company Prana Film, and they were looking to start off with something that Murnau could do justice too that wouldn’t break the bank. When his producer Albin Grau couldn’t get the rites to Dracula from Bram Stoker’s widow, Murnau decided he could do it anyway but had to be quiet about it. He either changed the names himself or had screenwriter Henrik Galeen do it, but by the time Nosferatu premiered, there was only the outline of Stoker’s novel left and consequently the things that weighed it down and which would cause filmmakers future headaches were all excised; if it wasn’t necessary or couldn’t be done cheaply, it got the axe. Murnau was an amazingly efficient storyteller (Faust being his one indulgence) and he manages to use the barest of Stoker’s element to make a film that is at once minimalist and effective. Despite the occasionally dry patches and the inevitable watch-tapping that comes with as many tangents as he throws into the last act separating us from the last confrontation with Orlok, he still wrings an awful lot out of very little. Knowing he had no budget for sets or effects (Schreck’s make-up wasn’t even all that extensive), Murnau made heavy use of landscapes and existing locations instead of building his own. In order to illustrate the strange movements of both Orlok and the carriage that brings Hutter to the castle, he simply did his best approximation of stop motion animation and what I believe is the earliest example of a negative reversal in mainstream cinema. Intriguingly, the villagers claim that the werewolf is out tonight (a carry-over from Stoker’s story) but Murnau cuts away to a shot of a Tasmanian Dog as if in explanation. Little tricks like this, which don’t necessarily add to the story, definitely add to our growing sense of displacement and they’re tricks that no-budget directors would use well into the 70s (some are still in use today). Werner Herzog, a disciple of Murnau who even remade the film in 1979, was clearly influenced by his use of location shooting as images like the two gypsies paddling Orlok’s coffin down river or of the Empusa would appear in evolved forms in films like Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Heart of Glass. Indeed I would go so far as to say that Schreck’s performance had a great impact on Herzog’s direction of actors. It’s not hard to see why: it's inspired.
Orson Welles used to talk about his part in The Third Man as being a star part, someone who's talked about for the whole movie and only appears for a few minutes to great acclaim - Max Schreck’s Orlok is one of those parts. With barely ten minutes of screen time not only does Schreck own the movie, but his is the iconic monster performance of foreign cinema. His face is instantly recognizable, his posture, dead eyes and clawed hands unmistakable, his intensity unrivaled even by the great Conrad Veidt. From the moment we see him, his rat-like countenance overcoming his attempts at geniality, he is the very soul of Nosferatu. His hand gestures and the way he carries himself suggests a rodent transformed into a human being trying and failing to hide his true form and though he’s a sight with his finery on, there is a difference between his trying to pass and his being the vampire. I’ve seen Nosferatu no fewer than a dozen times and though the film has lost a touch of its charm for me Schreck is still just as awesome as he was in the few stills I had seen before watching one minute of the movie. To be fair better monsters had been wasted before, so Murnau must be given credit for the man’s minimalist make-up and for the considerable gravity he lends the character. Take the scenes on the Empusa: this is my favorite rendering of the voyage of the Demeter from Stoker's novel, not just because of Schreck’s haunting appearance in the brig, though that is most excellent. No, what impresses me is the sense of despair that Murnau creates in a scene lasting about thirty seconds. The crew of the ship has taken ill thanks to the plague rats and to Orlok’s either biting or simply driving the men insane. We only see the first man hallucinate the vampire sitting atop a crate of earth and then we cut to the captain and first-mate throwing the bodies of the crew overboard (after an impressive shot of the full body of the ship). The mate looks to the captain and says, “I’m going below deck. If I’m not back in ten minutes…” and then he exits with a hatchet in his hand. They both know he’s not coming back but the man isn’t about to take the death of his crewmates lying down. Those few seconds they share between throwing the last man over and the mate going below are wonderfully somber and communicate so much of their journey and their characters and these two are by all means unnecessary characters. Yet we know more about them than Dr. Bulwer, the Van Helsing stand-in. Murnau handles the scenes at sea quite impressively and it’s why I believe there is still a good movie to be made about the Demeter. Oh, and a word about Bulwer. We're introduced to him as he shows a class a venus fly trap eating a fly and says "Like a vampire, no?" Venus fly traps eat bugs because they grow in bogs and wet areas; insects fly in from dry climates with vital minerals and nutrients they can't get from their own soil. Vampires prey on people from all over, their origin has nothing to do with their being prey and it's not like their landlocked or even region-locked. If vampires needed blood just because they were stationary or couldn't ever leave their coffins, that'd be a more apt comparison. I imagine the choice was more to do something clever with no money at all, but still...

Nosferatu is often cited as an example of German expressionism, a school of filmmaking started by Robert Wiene and continued by the likes of Paul Leni and Fritz Lang until the end of the 30s when most of its proponents either died or immigrated to the states. Here’s where I think people get their definitions crossed. Caligari and other later films (Metropolis, The Hands of Orlac or even Murnau’s Faust) all achieved their expressionist look through their incredibly produced look. Caligari’s sets are all brilliant paintings and at no time do the designers even attempt realism. Nosferatu on the other hand was all about naturalistic elements and finding normalcy and transforming it into something haunting. Thus Murnau and Wiene, both deserving of credit for their ingenuity and craft, were clearly at work at two different ends. Caligari is a dream, a phantasmagoria; Nosferatu brings the nightmare to life and has it walk through city streets. It’s only through editing and creating tension can something like the images of the waves, the under-developed graveyard on the beach or the stream beneath Hutter’s window seem menacing. Indeed the only scenes that have any of the expressionist touch to them are those last shots of the bedroom as Orlok stalks up to claim Ellen; his shadow on the wall, later echoed by Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M, are pure expressionism but by then the vampire’s horrific capability has been firmly established. In fact the expressionist angles accompany the end of the movie as if to point out that Murnau didn’t need artifice to create tension, that he could do the work of a Robert Wiene or Paul Leni with just people and real places (many of which stand untouched even now). Murnau makes a whole world seem frightening with only one openly horrific element, one overly strange one and one that is dreadful but hardly a horror convention.

The plague makes for an interesting addition to the story as its one that Stoker himself never touched on. Henrik Galeen’s script is full of inversions and I would say improvements on the quality of Stoker’s story, which was a kind of gory melodrama. By making his vampire seem a more evil force and having it prey only on Hutter and Ellen instead of the whole cast of the rogue’s gallery he bothers in the novel, his effects are felt more quickly and more sinisterly. We don’t have the sluttish Lucy or the eccentric Van Helsing to spar with and so his effect is on their relationship alone. Aware that the plague and the vampire arrived at once, they are connected and after reading the book on vampires that Hutter brought back, Ellen decides to save her husband (to be?) and by extension the city she lives in. Murnau’s movie, as indeed many of his best were, is thus not focused on the repressed eroticism of Stoker’s characters but on a love for people (funnily enough, his first American feature Sunrise would be about the triumph of marriage over temptation, a much more flagrant stab at eroticism's damning effects than his adapation of Stoker's great sex scare of a book). Hutter only seems concerned when he thinks that Orlok is after his bride and his mood improves considerably when he is at home with her, even though people are dying of the plague all around them. Hutter thus becomes a tribute to a kind of unshakable love, one that doesn’t cow and in fact seems content when faced with death – he’s with his bride, what else could he want? Ellen’s sacrifice then is not just in the name of her love for Hutter (who she knows is still tormented by the vampire) but for everyone who will be spared a death by plague when the vampire disappears.
And so we have our villain in the unthinking malice and violence of Orlok and his plague rats and the chaos-loving Knock. Knock is clearly Galeen and Murnau’s Renfield but he’s already a sadistic asshole before he falls under Orlok’s influence. Alexander Granach’s performance starts a touch over-the-top so it’s no great stretch to picture him going nuts, but it’s when he’s in the asylum that he proves himself a tremendous physical performer. Knock is a lovingly created grotesque, a squat torso with incongruously nimble limbs like one of Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s creations for The Nightmare Before Christmas. Before we know anything about the vampire, we know that Knock is a foil to Hutter – all grinning greediness. Knock may or may not sense that Orlok isn’t on the level but he has no problem sending his eager employee into harm’s way and renting the house opposite him to someone like the count. When imprisoned in the nut house he eats insects (a bit of the vampire showing through, as in Renfield) but he also steals from his guards and beats them. He loves violence and disorder, as his stint on the outside proves. He is Orlok’s public face, sewing discord and violence – the vignette with the scarecrow proving both what fear does to people and violence won’t work against such a destructive personality. Orlok and Knock both are incapable of love, only hate, violence and in Orlok’s case lust (Knock’s greed may be read this way, but it doesn’t factor into the third act). People are fuel and they can’t be burnt up quick enough, so Ellen’s altruistic gesture must be her and Orlok’s undoing; he can’t recognize that she would put others before herself and she cannot be spared his cruelty. I find this a much more appealing dynamic than the obsession and let’s-wrap-this-shit-up murder that closes Dracula.

The final point to consider about the script (at least as we know it today) was that someone (Galeen or Murnau) was having a laugh at Stoker’s expense. One thing few people comment on is the sly sense of ribbing its illegitimate source material. Nosferatu takes every opportunity to take the piss out of Stoker and his humourless widow. The first step was taking the charm out of the novel’s hero, then removing all religious symbolism, then poking fun at the ideas Stoker came up with. Galeen had no solution to something like Hutter’s blindness at being set upon by Orlok for so long, so in what I take to be a joke at the late novelist’s expense, he has the poor man write to his fiancé of two small mosquito bites very close together. Galeen goes to great pains to elaborate on the ignorance required of Hutter to not notice that Orlok is bad news. ‘How could no one have been wise to this guy by now?’ he seems to ask. How could anyone take the line “your wife has a lovely neck” from a villain who is obviously a motherfucking vampire, as anything other than a joke, a breaking of the fourth wall? It’s no wonder that Mrs. Stoker had the film pulled from circulation after its bacchanalian premiere (the event apparently saw everyone present, including a young Ernest Lubitsch, dancing and perhaps doing a good deal more in Victorian finery following the screening, something I think I now need to recreate) and ordered the prints burned. It was only through carefully combing collections and private storage that a salvageable print was found and then restored.
Nosferatu existed for years in truncated, black & white prints with improvised title cards and either a clumsy electronic score or a quite effective small orchestral score depending on which version you saw. In the early 2000s the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung supervised a restoration to the version closest to what those drunken revelers saw the night of Nosferatu’s premiere. The new version has benefits and setbacks of its own. The title cards are the most distracting ‘improvement’ as they take much longer than any of the cards from the bastard versions that circulated in the public domain for years. I also miss the rougher language of some of those versions (the difference between ‘neck’ and ‘throat’ in the scene I described above might seem a trifle but the latter makes more sense coming from Orlok). Though of course Murnau’s achievements as director pale in the grainier versions, even if there is a sense of watching something forbidden and forgotten in the black & white public prints. The Stiftung also managed to find a Nitrate tinted film which meant that all the scenes tinted blue to recreate a night sky were restored and the rest of the film alternates between red and yellow. Remarkably, the footage looks as though much of it could be recreated tomorrow, which is simply flooring. Much of it looks so thrillingly alive and crisp that the time difference all but disappears in my estimation of many of the film’s more effective scenes. Indeed I think it’s the pristine quality of the Stiftung print wound up on Kino’s amazing special edition that accounts for my shifting attitude towards the film. Some days I’m more forgiving, others I’m quite harshly inclined. Because it looks so brilliant I often get fed up with the broad performances, forgetting that the film was made in 1922 for the span of ten or twelve minutes. And that, like Nosferatu’s being both one of the first and one of the best vampire films even today, Murnau’s incredible direction and Schreck’s immersive performance, is quite an achievement.

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