Colossus of Rhode Island

1922-Nosferatu | June 6, 2010

Nosferatu from wikipedia.org

Nosferatu from wikipedia.org

Nosferatu (also referred to as Nosferatu:  A Symphony of Horror), directed by the legendary F.W. Murnau, begins with a young real estate apprentice named Hutter.  I love him because it is clear within the first 30 seconds he is on screen that Hutter is absolutely insane.  Early on in the film he must leave his wife (which I assume is played by an actress but, like most women in German silent films, looks like a man in drag) because of business.  He works for a man named Knock (just imagine Ebenezer Scrooge and you have imagined Knock).  Knock sends Hutter to the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania because a Count named Orlock wishes to buy property in their town.  If this sounds familiar it is because Nosferatu is simply the story of Dracula with the names and one of the locations changed (instead of coming to England, the Count wishes to come to Germany).  Hutter is Jonathan Harker, Professor Bulwer is Van Helsing, and Count Orlock is Dracula.

They needed to change these details because although Dracula’s author, Bram Stoker, was deceased, his widow was still alive and would not give them the rights to film a movie version of the novel.  I suppose that they could have begun the film with the following disclaimer: “Any similarities between this and the only other vampire story are purely coincidental,” but that would have seemed rude since it was such an obvious lie.  Florence Stoker sued the filmmakers and won.  Courts ordered that the movie be destroyed but some copies of it were kept and still exist today.

Another of the great German Expressionist movies (although this film is not as overt in its expressionism as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Nosferatu (a reference to “vampire,” a word the filmmaker avoided) uses shadows better than almost any other movie.  Max Schreck’s performance as the vampiric count is highlighted by sharp contrasts of light and shadow, which make him seem even more menacing to the viewer and to his victims.  Visual effects considered primitive today must have had a powerful impact on audiences in 1922.  The first third of the movie, which takes place in the Carpathians, may have even been shot on location (this is one of those things that I have heard, but cannot verify due to my “no research” policy on the blog), making the beginning of the film even more intense.

Unlike the suave version of Dracula introduced by Bela Lugosi (and continued by Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman), Count Orlock is repulsive.  Visually evocative of a giant rat, he is the vampire as vermin.  This vampire will not seduce his victims.  In this interpretation a vampire is a filthy parasite living on the blood of others.  It is different from most versions you may have seen and it is incredibly creepy.

Some of the performances may seem too melodramatic to modern viewers (particularly Hutter’s) and the film certainly would not be considered scary by modern standards.  It is a compliment to Schreck’s performance as Orlock that the movie is still creepy and to Murnau’s direction that it is still visually and atmospherically interesting.

If you do decide to watch this film, be careful which copy you see.  This seems like a good time to bring up a tricky issue with silent films.  A ridiculous number of silent films do not survive to the current day.  There were a couple of reasons for this.  Movies were filmed on a nitrate-based film stock and nitrate (1) shrinks over time (this is why old movies sometimes seem jumpy, because the images have shrunk slightly in places) and (2) is highly flammable.  Movies were also edited differently in various places around the world (depending on what local censors felt would be suitable for their audience) and movies were often either used until they wore out or were thrown away when theaters were done with them.  Some versions of silent films are just pieced together from the scraps that were gathered.  Depending on the print that you watch of a silent film, you may not be seeing the full picture.  You may get a version that is an hour long and rent another copy of the same movie and get one that is an hour and a half.

Why this was a hard decision (Other movies from 1922 that are worth seeing):

Dr. Mabuse:  Der Spieler is the earliest of Fritz Lang’s movies that is readily available on today.  Lang made some decent movies after moving to the U.S. in 1934, but his German films, from Dr. Mabuse:  Der Spieler to 1933’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse are all solid films and are all worth seeing (and I’m sure at least one of them will come up in future posts).  Foolish Wives, written, directed by and starring Erich Von Stroheim, is a masterpiece of silent drama, with complex characters and wonderful direction.  Robin Hood continued Douglas Fairbanks’s run of wonderful action/swashbuckling pictures and was, as far as I know, the first time Robin Hood appeared on film.  Just like every Fairbanks movie, it is characterized by fun, excitement, and athletic stunts.

Did you know?  (1922 Trivial Knowledge):

  • The 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire is a fictionalized version of Nosferatu’s production, in which Willem Defoe plays the lead character, but is also a genuine vampire who kills his leading lady.
  • Movies of this era were not actually “Black and White.”  Directors would use color tints to give the movie different moods and to indicate different things.  For instance, since they could not film at night, a director would films scenes that took place at night with a blue tint.  There is a lot of blue tint in Nosferatu.
  • Bram Stoker’s first name is short for “Abraham.”
  • Erich Von Stroheim, director and star of Foolish Wives, created one of the greatest lost films.  Greed was a nine-hour epic that the studio cut down to two hours.  They destroyed the remaining footage.  He also played the butler in Sunset Boulevard opposite Gloria Swanson, one of his former leading ladies.
  • Alan Hale, father of Alan Hale Jr. (the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island), played the character of Little John in both Douglas Fairbanks’s version of Robin Hood and in Errol Flynn’s version in 1938.  He also played the character in his final film role in 1950.

Favorite Quote:

“Your wife has a lovely neck”-Count Orlock to Hutter

Which DVD version did I watch?

The Kino on Video DVD, not the Ultimate Edition, the regular edition.

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6 Comments »

  1. Dan, I’ll always remember when you first saw Bela Lugosi’s Dracula… was that in middle school? You were so amazed and enthralled that you wanted us all to watch it again with you, and you narrated each scene for us! I enjoy reading your blog and learn so much with each installment.

    I often wonder what would have been if your ancestor, Josephine Hall, had been born just a few years later. Would she have made her way into film? And would there have been more information available about her and her theatrical life? I think that it is wonderful that you are writing about the life and times of so many people who made important contributions in the development of film and movies. Their work and accomplishments often go unheralded, yet their efforts were the foundation for the films of today.

    Comment by Mom — June 10, 2010 @ 1:35 am

    • I had forgotten all about that. I always loved that movie (I always wanted to be Dr. Van Helsing when I grew up). I’m pretty sure that was just before middle school, around 4th or 5th grade. I sometimes think about Josephine Hall too, I think when she was around movies were still considered something that “serious” actors did not do, so I wonder if she would have been involved in that industry or just stayed on the stage.

      Comment by colossusofrhodeisland — June 20, 2010 @ 12:07 am

  2. that complete mabuse box set from masters of cinema was one of the things that convinced me that i finally need to get a good all region player.
    .
    as to the subject- ‘nosferatu’ (and herzog’s version, as well) has always been my favourite dracula film and it’s something that is just dying for a high definition remaster.

    Comment by s.j. bagley — June 19, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

    • Surprisingly, I hadn’t heard of that series. I’m a little afraid to check it out because I can’t afford to get a new player right now. Mabuse was very close to being the pick here, but I just love Nosferatu. I re-discovered it a couple of years ago when I lived in Chicago. I hadn’t seen it in years and I saw on Halloween on the big screen with my friend Luisa, and a live organist. It wasn’t the best print, but it was tons of fun.

      Comment by colossusofrhodeisland — June 19, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

  3. I love Nosferatu! The first time I saw it the music was touch-and-go. Every time someone rode a carriage around there was a looney-tunes-esque toodle or oompah or something. Was that the original soundtrack?

    Then I saw it on the big screen with a live band, and that was the jam.

    Comment by Brendan — June 24, 2010 @ 12:40 am

    • I think that all versions have to do their own thing with the music, so it is a bit touch and go because some DVD companies (particularly when the movie is out of copyright and it is almost all profit for them) don’t really care too much. I don’t know the original soundtrack and it is possible that no one does. The studios would send out sheet music to some movies, but sometimes the movie houses would just provide their own.

      Comment by colossusofrhodeisland — June 24, 2010 @ 1:49 am


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I write things...this thing that I'm writing and you're reading is a series of posts, starting with 1920 and focusing on a movie from each year that I think you should see.

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