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

Die Buchse Der Pandora (AKA: Pandora’s Box) (1929)

Die Buchse Der Pandora (AKA: Pandora’s Box) – 1929

Director – G. W. Pabst

Starring – Louise Brooks, Francis Lederer, Alice Roberts, and Carl Goetz

There are a whole stable full of directors that you hear about, and see examples from during film school.  You get a bit of a buffet education as it concerns the history of film combined with a bit of the preferences and eccentricities of the person teaching the class. What you don’t get, is a real comprehensive view of any country or movement’s stable of talented directors or actors for any given time period.  Due to a lack of time, and with such a wealth of history packed into the 130 years or so that film has been around, there are bound to be more than a few important names and examples that fall through the cracks.

One such director was G. W. Pabst, a name I had heard on more than one occasion during one or two of my cinema history classes, but nothing that was ever explored in-depth.  As far as Pabst’s rather sizable list of credits, the name that comes up more than any of the others, time and again as one of his best is (surprise, surprise, that’s why I’m writing this review) Pandora’s Box.  So does the most popular film from one of Germany’s greatest directors of the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s deserve more attention in the eyes of the world?  Absolutely, it does.

Pandora’s Box tells the story of the ingenue Lulu, a woman struggling to balance the expectations of the multiple men in her life, while each in turn blames her for all of their shortcomings and misfortunes.  Lulu, the object of each (and presumably every) man’s desire, simultaneously becomes the scapegoat and the solution for each.  It is implied, rather explicitly, that she is a courtesan.  An object to covet, to own, use, and discard as the situation demands.

To Schigolch, the man who turned her out (read: pimp), she is a source of income and security, a commodity to be spent.  To her current keeper, Dr. Schon, she is a trophy to be proudly kept and displayed.  To Alwa, Dr. Schon’s son, she is an innocent to be lusted after and saved.  Each man takes it upon himself to “rescue” Lulu through ineffectual half-measures, later blaming her for their own actions.  Where once she was considered a shining, golden conquest, now she is seen as a home-wrecker, and a burden.

While she doesn’t strictly do anything malicious or wrong per se, Lulu never really learns her lesson and manages to perpetuate the cycle through her own inaction.  She is more than willing to let these people come to her rescue and place her in these gilded cages.  Either unable or unwilling to stand up for herself against her “benefactors”, Lulu continues to spiral downwards into worse and worse situations culminating in selling herself, body and soul.

I have this impression of movies from this day and age as being simply sensational adventures to thrill audiences.  Pandora’s Box, with its contemplation of gender, sexuality, dominance, and castigation, is a different animal all together.  With this film, there is an intelligence and genuine desire to explore different points of view, a challenge to the audience to consider the inequalities facing woman, and illustrating the need for examination and change.  All of this, mind you was taking place in the aftermath of World War I, during the rise of the Nazi party, alongside the economical, and social chaos and turmoil that was Germany in 1929.

Louise Brooks, the American expatriate who plays Lulu, does an exceptional job in the role, embracing the it from her trademark bob-haircut, to her pouty doe-eyed expression.  Many were upset at the casting of an American in what was considered a role meant for a German, but fears were ultimately assuaged and critics were duly mollified upon seeing Brooks’ performance.  Truly, she made the role hers, and she has remained synonymous with the character of Lulu ever since.

Francis Lederer, Alice Roberts, and Carl Goetz provide eye-catching support for Brooks, each turning in roles of a lifetime in their own rights.  Goetz, in particular reeks with a slimy, contestable charm as Lulu’s pimp/father-figure Schigolch, a man who doesn’t think twice about wringing all he can from his young meal-ticket.

The version of the film I saw was the newly remastered version put out by the always fantastic Criterion Collection.  This version was no exception to their rule of providing only the highest quality films, restoration, remastering, and packaging.  If you do get to see this film, I hope it is this version that you decide to watch.  Rent it if you must, and buy it if you can, as the film comes with the usual rogues gallery of special features and a whole book full of essays on the film to boot.

I know very little about the rest of G.W. Pabst’s work, but now I’d really like to know more.  So influential in the world of film was Pabst, that he even gets a shout out, and becomes more than a slight plot point in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (a phenomenal film in its own right.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and GO SEE THAT SHIT!)  Needless to say, I will be hunting down more of this man’s work, eagerly hoping that Pandora’s Box wasn’t just a one shot wonder, or simply a fluke.  Highly recommended!!