Saturday, October 4, 2014

Wicked Symphony: "Nosferatu"

Schloss Orlok is not only a nod of appreciation to Nosferatu, but it's a kind of shrine to the demons that were born in F.W. Murnau's wake. Max Schreck heads the choir, and without his ghastly and still haunting portrayal of Graf Orlok/Count Dracula, modern horror would be a much paler creature. 

The amazing thing about Nosferatu is that it was almost burned up, destroyed, and obliterated. If not for one of cinema's first cult followings, Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens would never have made it out of 1922. The reason behind this has nothing to do with the film's frightening character nor its avant-garde interpretation of a Gothic classic. Basically, the plot against Nosferatu was founded in a legitimate grievance, namely that the film was an unauthorized and unsanctioned adaptation of Dracula. Prana Film, which would be a one-and-done entity thanks to the legal actions taken by the estate of Bram Stoker, thought it kosher to just simply substitute names without explicitly deviating from the 1897 original. 

Sure, on the surface, there are numerous differences between Murnau's film and Stoker's novel. First of all, Stoker's novel is about a Transylvanian vampire - a former slayer of Turks - who comes to Victorian England with nothing but malevolent intentions. In Nosferatu, another Transylvanian - Graf Orlok - comes to the fictional northern German seaport of Wisborg in 1838 with similar intentions. Like Dracula, Orlok lusts after blood, especially female blood, but Orlok is no demi-god and his vampirism lacks the ability to transform his victims. Instead, Orlok is more like the vampires of Eastern European lore in that he is a plague-carrier, an undead force that finds comfort in rats and the decaying stench of death. 

Other deviations from Dracula include powers and weaknesses, as well as the way in which Orlok dies. Unlike the Count, Orlok cannot venture out into the sunlight at all and his on-screen death presents the first example of a vampire dying via exposure to sunlight. In Dracula, the titular monster has his throat slit by the Bowie knife of the Texan Quincey Morris. Dracula's great pursuers - Morris, Dr. Van Helsing, and Arthur Holmwood - are missing in Nosferatu, and furthermore they mostly don't even have representatives standing in for them. 

Jonathan Harker, the unfortunate real estate agent who is destined to be Dracula's first British victim, becomes Thomas Hutter (played by Gustav von Wagenheim), while Mina Harker, Joanthan's beloved fiancee, becomes Ellen Hutter (played by Greta Schr√∂der) in the film. More startling still, Renfield, Dracula's deranged acolyte in England, becomes the even more disturbing Knock (played by Alexander Granach). The difference between Renfield and Knock is in some ways indicative of the small gulf that exists between the two entities. Whereas Dracula is sensual, decadent, and spiced with aromatic smells that are redolent of artistic salons and the midnight streets of foggy London, Nosferatu is more earthy, more surreal, and far uglier. The elegant and noble Count Dracula becomes the rodent-like Orlok - a strange creature who lives in a ruined castle all the while lacking any aristocratic tendencies. Dracula is the human monster to Orlok's otherworldly spectre. 

Behind the scenes, Nosferatu was fully loaded with those type of elements that make for good copy. The 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, which fictionalizes the making of Nosferatu with Willem Dafoe playing Schreck as a real bloodsucker, only exaggerates things a tad. Producer and set designer Albin Grau was an occultist who sprinkled esotericism into the film, most notably in the scene wherein Knock reads the cryptic letters written by Orlok himself. 

Apparently, these strange scribbles contain alchemical, hermetic, and Enochian characters, all of which are attached to actual magick and ceremonial rituals. Grau, a member of the German magical order Fraternitas Saturni, subtly imbued Nosferatu with occult symbolism and mystical frameworks. Murnau's adventuresome use of film negative and stop-motion sequences not only heighten the abnormality of Orlok's presence, but it also adds a dreamlike quality to the picture. 

Another feature of Nosferatu is its exquisite script, which was penned by the much-overlooked Henrik Galeen, whose prose was described by Lotte Eisner as being "full of poetry, full of rhythm." In crafting the screenplay, Galeen not only had to rework the Stoker novel, but he also had to translate to the screen Grau's initial inspiration, which had occurred during World War I when Grau, then a German soldier in the east, stumbled upon a Serbian family that claimed that their patriarch was a vampire. By all accounts, Galeen did an exceptional job, and it's a shame that he ultimately died in Randolph, Vermont as a little-known master of the literate age of silent film. 

Besides all of the strangeness surrounding the film and contained within the very celluloid, Nosferatu is also notable for its dazzling array of visuals. From Orlok's ruined castle in the Transylvanian Carpathians (which stands today in Slovakia, not Romania) to the shot of the plague-ravaged ship entering the Wisborg harbor, Murnau and cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner turned out an exceptionally beautiful art work that just so happens to deal almost exclusively with death. An undiluted air of loneliness pervades almost the entire work. Only the ending turns away the gloom, but even then the happy reunion of Hutter and Ellen feels forced, and thus undercuts what could've been a much more powerful moment. 

All in all, Nosferatu is unquestionably one of silent cinema's greatest achievements. A classic example of German Expressionism and its lasting influence on both mystery and horror cinema, Nosferatu is one part shadow play phantasmagoria and one part dark Romanticism. Like the older The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu shows a national cinema at its height, and it just so happens that horror proved to be the perfect genre for a failing state on the verge of committing one of history's greatest atrocities. 

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