Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens (AKA: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror) (1922)

Nosferatu

Nosferatu, Eine Syphonie Des Grauens (AKA: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror) – 1922

Director –  F. W. Murnau

Starring – Max Schreck, Greta Schroder, and Gustav van Wangenheim

Of the many different genres of cinema, horror seems to be relegated to the bottom of the list when it comes to perceived importance and impact.  Drama, perhaps, is the category voted the most likely to get recognition and accolades, where as comedy seems to get the people’s choice award, but for my money some of the most effective and memorable films reside firmly in the realm of suspense, tragedy, and horror.  Even films that are billed more as mystery like, Psycho, or science fiction, such as Aliens, have elements directly rooted in the anatomy of the horror film.  Brimming with dark imagery, unsettling characters, and casual situations gone wrong, films such as The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Thing are very obviously direct descendants of Nosferatu.  it doesn’t end there either, F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece has informed the structure, tone, editing, and atmosphere of movies as a whole, and worked its way into the DNA of the language of modern cinema.

The most striking feature of Nosferatu, is the look of the film (duh…it is a silent movie after all.).  Though not as exaggerated and dramatic in appearance as fellow german expressionist work, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I found the imagery more immediate and haunting.  Starkly black and white (with only subtle color washes to provide a different feel for outdoor versus indoor scenes), Nosferatu relies on stillness and subtle creeping atmosphere to first un-nerve the viewer, then slowly build the tension of the film to a boiling point.  From the long shadowed gothic architecture of the vampire’s castle to the dilapidated, shell of a building which he inhabits upon his arrival in the fictional coastal town of Wisborg, the set pieces lend to the characters aura of danger, and the looming danger that follow with him.

Borrowing obviously from the Dracula story, originally by author Bram Stoker, Murnau and his lead actor Max Schreck craft a version of the vampire character rooted not so much in sexual charisma and riches, than it is in brute strength and fear.  Count Orlok as this Vampire is known, looks sleep deprived, starved, and ravenous.  There is a ferocity in the portrayal that is far more present and vibrant than almost every other vampire that I’ve ever seen depicted in film.  Orlok looks like a cross between the Tall Man from the Phantasm films, and a burned rat, and frankly seeing him for the first time, silhouetted in the archway of his manor, is more than a little unsettling.  The film even refers to him as the “Bird of Death”, further likening him to the dangerous animal that he is.

His appearance isn’t his only weapon though, throughout the film, the vampire utilizes impressive strength, mind control, power over animals, as well as a peculiar telekinetic ability which allows him to, non-corporally interact with the world (self-moving coffins, and doors opening in a simple, but effective stop-motion animation).  When these qualities are added up in one package, Orlok seems like an unstoppable force and brings a real sense of dread with him as he lurks slowly through the scene.

One of the first examples of a Cult Film, Nosferatu nearly didn’t survive after the estate of Bram Stoker sued for copyright infringement and a court ordered all existing prints of the film burned.  This bankrupted the production company who had neglected to acquire the rights to the Dracula story.  Luckily, copies of the film had already been shipped around the world, and survived destruction, eventually being copied and cultivated by fervent fans and film enthusiasts the world over.

As far as acting goes, the discussion should start and stop with the film’s terrifying lead, Max Schreck.  His gaunt frame and solid performance helped to create one of the most indelible characters ever created.  The rest of the cast does a fine job in their roles, but they only ever really play second fiddle to Schreck/Orlok, causing us to miss him when he leaves the frame and thrill us every time he is back on the screen.  His performance is so legendary, that a number of rumors have built up around both the character as well as the actor, painting him as everything from a true method actor, to a a real life sadist who simply plays himself on-screen.  It is these rumors that inspired a fictionalized telling of the actor’s life during the filming of Nosferatu, in the form of “Shadow of the Vampire” starring John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck.

From the research I’ve done (readings and such about the making of both Nosferatu as well as Shadow of the Vampire) I can find no evidence that any of that is true.  Instead, it would seem that this rather powerful character has simply had the effect of coloring people’s impression of a rather popular stage character actor.  Like many actors, (ie: Maria Falconetti from Passion of Joan of Arc, Linda Blair of the Exorcist, and Jaye Davidson of The Crying Game), Schreck seems to have used up all of his intensity, charisma and skill to be remembered for one great work of art.  Though he continued acting, it is always Nosferatu that he will be remembered for, and vice versa.

I feel like there is so much more that could be said about this film, including comparisons to other films, and weighing and mapping the influence that ripples even through the films of today, but I feel the best service I can do is simply to tell you to watch it.  Just watch the shit out of it.  I know it’s silent, and sometimes silent films can be boring, but this film is worth it (not that others aren’t worth it, mind you).  To see this film is to see one of the keystones in the history of film, a film that helped to define the rules which are adhered to even today.  So do yourself a favor and watch it, you won’t regret it.

“Nosferatu be needing some veneers!”  –  Ashley

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Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari (AKA: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) (1919)

Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari (AKA: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) – 1919

Director – Robert Wiene

Starring – Werner Krauss, Conrad Viedt, and Frederich Feher

We’ve all been through the situation in which a movie that we missed gets watched by everyone else.  Everyone else loves the film and proceeds to tell us about it and how good it is.  It’s at this point that we go to see said film, and lo and behold, it’s disappointing.  For one reason or another it doesn’t stack up or meet our expectations.  I think we can all agree that this sucks.

There is a similar scenario that I’ve encountered a few times, where the extremely popular film gets talked up to such a degree that it starts getting boring again.  We get sick of hearing about it, it might come from a certain time frame that doesn’t necessarily interest us, doesn’t have sound, or whatever.  Long story short, we are disappointed going INTO the film.  Despite the fact that the glowing reviews haven’t changed, they’ve been negated by our own shitty attitude.  Going into a movie this way, makes it seem pretty good, or if you’re lucky like I was with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it ends up being pretty great.

Few movies have had as much of a lasting impact, been as visually striking, impacting and influential as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  The tone is set up from the start, and it continues to bleed menace and unease for the rest of its compact 80 minute run time.  The premise, the makeup and most of all the set pieces serve to keep the tone of the film from faltering or the pace from slowing down, and all of these elements work together to enhance something that could have easily been over-rated.

The story is one that is familiar to modern movie audiences, yet it is not one that is expected.  I have to be careful when explaining it to not give too much away, but suffice to say, a strange character comes to town, Dr. Caligari, a somnambulist, with large claims of hypnotism, and mystery (now I’m still a little unclear whether the term somnambulist refers to Dr. Caligari himself or to his perpetually sleeping minion Cesare).  That very night a horrible murder occurs, and by chance the victim happens to be someone who had a run in with Dr. Caligari earlier on in the story.  The show goes on and the murders continue, until someone makes the connection, and starts to probe a little further into the past of this Caligari character.

In the film’s historical time frame, acting was a loose term at best that was really more a study of posing and moving ones eyes, but it is put to good use here as each actor manages to convey a fair amount of terror and suspicion all through their looks.  The most successful of these performances is turned in by Werner Krauss, as the good doctor himself.  A fair amount of his success is due to his makeup and to the set pieces, both of which accentuate the unsettling nature of his character’s devious nature.  Caligari slinks around all sneers and grimaces, perpetuating the fear and discomfort of the audience, all without the convenience of dialogue.  Similarly effective is the gaunt haunted character Cesare, Caligari’s minion, though he is really more of a tool of menace that the doctor wields than a character in his own right.

The one drawback I can point to as something that took me out of the story, was the speed at which the subtitles delivered the necessary information.  They operated at a snail’s pace, and stayed up on-screen way too long.  I suppose that can be chalked up to the fact that at the time it was made, film was a newer art form, and as such was subject to the learning curve just like everything else.  Though it explains things, being able to read the cue card 5-8 times through before they changed doesn’t make it any less distracting during what is otherwise a rather tense narrative.

All in all, I would definitely champion this film to be one of the 1001 films one should make a point of seeing before they die.  It belongs on this list as an example of history, technical innovation (the set pieces, taking on the physical characteristics of the characters is pretty astounding), not to mention the recognition deserved based on its quality as a piece of art.  Dr. Caligari is definitely a pre-cursor to a lot of horror and suspense films, so if that genre interests you, you should definitely take a look.

“I’m going to hypnotize your ass…in German!”  –  Ashley