DraculaFest: Nosferatu

Long before they began to sparkle, vampires rampaged through folkore as creatures to be feared and despised, not fawned over by high school girls. Neither charming nor handsome, they preyed upon the living and drained their life essence, wreaking havoc long after death. These are the monsters that inspired F.W. Murnau and his cast and crew at the legendary UFA studio in Weimar Germany.

You gonna finish that blutwurst?

You gonna finish that blutwurst?

Nosferatu (1922) holds the dual distinction of first Dracula adaptation and first unauthorized knockoff. Though screenwriter Henrik Galeen pulled the story directly from Stoker’s novel–and acknowledged as much in the credits–Stoker’s estate had never blessed the production. Changes were made in order to avoid litigation: Count Dracula became Count Orlok; Jonathan and Mina Harker became Thomas and Ellen Hutter; the Count’s new home moved from England to Germany. These thin alterations proved not enough, however, to avoid a court order that destroyed all but a few copies. Fortunately, the film lived on in death much like its protagonist.

Count Orlok is no Romeo or Lothario. Wide and flat ears frame his bald head, much like the wings of a bat. His fangs grow from his front teeth, much like the bite of a rodent. His gnarled fingers serve as warped talons. No brandy by the fire or nights at the opera for this Count; he feeds on his neighbors without benefit of romantic foreplay. For proponents of Dracula as invasion literature, Nosferatu serves as Exhibit A. Orlok is a deranged and misshapen foreigner come to prey upon the civilized world. Max Schreck delivers a classic movie monster with mannerisms and physicality that leap off the screen without the aid of dialogue. In fact, his silent predation adds to the creep factor. The remaining actors, well, let’s just say playing to the back row was still a thing in that era and leave it at that. The melodrama adds to the fun. Murnau employs every film resource at his disposal: purple-tinted frames to indicate nightfall, angular sets with looming shadows, cranked-up speeds and reverse exposures to indicate the supernatural. And, at 92 minutes, it never overstays its welcome.

Why sail from Transylvania to Germany, though?

Why sail from Transylvania to Germany, though?

Plenty has been said about this classic silent film. It’s horror, first and foremost, a counterweight to the swashbuckling count of Dracula Untold. Murnau is my favorite of the German Expressionist directors, though his output ended abruptly with a car accident at 42. At least he also gave us The Last Laugh, Phantom, Faust and Sunrise, the latter of which I’ve already spoken. UFA’s influence on horror can’t be overstated. Hitchcock learned his craft there before returning to England. Others like DP Karl Freund brought their techniques to Hollywood and showed Universal how to shoot a horror picture. Now there’s an invasion I can get behind.

Other than knock-off name changes, this film introduces two new elements to the Dracula mythos. It’s the first to demonstrate that vampires can be destroyed by sunlight–Stoker’s count merely loses his supernatural powers during the day. Also of interest, Mina stand-in Ellen Hutter destroys Orlok herself by distracting him until sunrise with her feminine charms. Brave Sir Robin, indeed.

Finally, an unqualified classic! Nosferatu earns 2 out of 2 fangs out. Two long, razor-sharp rat’s teeth.

Up next: Coppola takes a swing.

Horror comes to America

 

sunrise_murnau-580x396-300x204

The Silent Winter showing of Murnau’s Faust brings to mind how much modern horror owes to the German Expressionists of the 1920s. F.W. Murnau, along with Fritz Lang, pioneered the modern horror film in Germany and brought their skills to America.

Murnau’s first foray into Hollywood cinema delivered Sunrise, easily one of the best American films of the silent era. At the Oscars, it picked up Best Actress (Janet Gaynor) and Best Cinematography (Karl Struss), and an unprecedented special award for “Unique and Artistic Production.” It’s nigh impossible to overstate the impact that Murnau and his contemporaries made on Hollywood. And speaking of German cinematographers, Universal’s genre-defining horror films of the 40s (Dracula, et al.) owe their iconic vision to cinematographer Karl Freund, who previously worked with Murnau on The Last Laugh and Tartuffe. (He even went on to pioneer the three-camera TV technique on I Love Lucy.)

Nosferatu is no doubt Murnau’s most famous work, and its acclaim is certainly deserved. (I think I prefer scary, repugnant vampires to our current high-schoolers and swamp dwellers.) But Sunrise and The Last Laugh would have to duke it out for the the title of my personal favorite. Both bring the high-contrast, surreal technique of his horror films into everyday life. And what could be more frightening than everyday life?

Not sure where I’m going with all this, other than to note that my appetite for creepy, expressionist horror has been whetted. Time for an UFA fest!

Silent Winter 2013

faust1

Silent films are, by and large, victimized by poor presentation.  For many, their only experience with the medium is through showings on television:  indifferent transfers from badly worn prints; uncoverted frame rates that crank the action at comical speeds; cheesy, melodramatic organ tracks added to the soundtrack well after release.  The attached stigma is such that many, many people dismiss early cinema out of hand as boring, outdated and rife with clichés.  This is a true shame, because the silent cinema has produced some true classics of human expression.  A restored print of an early film on the big screen, with live accompaniment, bears little resemblance to the well-worn spectacles on basic cable.

Good thing, then, that organizations such as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival are providing opportunities to experience these films in all their former glory.  Silent Winter 2013 is a single-day event featuring five programs.  As a fan of all things UFA, the screening of Faust is particularly squee-worthy.  Those German Expressionists really bring the chiaroscuro!

Anyone else in?  We can tailgate this mofo.