Monday, June 27, 2011

A Symphony Of Horror

Director: F.W. Murnau
Cast: Max Schreck, Greta Schroder, Gustav Von Wagenheim, Alexander Granach

The first vampire film and possibly the best one ever made. Nosferatu was part of the German expressionism movement that began after the First World War, beginning with the nightmarish, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1919). Expressionism was largely defined by harsh lighting and a focus on shadows and distortion, often produced on artificial settings. That's why it's interesting that Nosferatu, which is the best of the expressionist films, chooses to be the most atypical. Instead of artificial settings to achieve it's horror, director F.W. Murnau used actual castles and outdoor surroundings to convey a sense for period that actually adds genuine authenticity to the film and makes one feel as they are actually witnessing the events as they unfolded in Bremen in 1831.
The plot is a loose retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula, changing the locales from London to the Baltic States and the names of the characters, but the story is roughly the same. It was so similiar that Stoker's widow sued the filmmakers and ordered all copies destroyed, which thankfully for us, was never properly carried out.
Nosferatu contains many of the melodramatic flourishes that made the silent film era, but the direction is top notch and the acting style actually enhances the nightmarish mood already established by the settings. Max Schreck's performance as the bloodthirsty count is the most disturbing and repugnant vampire in history. His jerky movements and disturbing makeup was far removed from the suave and sophisticated vampires to follow, but remains quite effective and unique, inspiring a whole plethora of screen monsters.
Many unforgettable images pepper the film from the fateful carriage ride to the Count's castle(at one point in the travel, the film is shot in negative, a neat optical effect), Nosferatu's rise from the coffin, his stalking of Hutter and his wife and his final poetic shot as he disentegrates in the sunlight are among the most striking moments in cinema.
The impact of this film would inspire all future vampire and horror films, complete with the destruction of vampire by sunlight, an invention of Murnau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen, though no other film adaptions would quite recapture the creepiness or dread captured in this one. As one critic put it at the time of the film's initial release, "Nosferatu is a chilly blast of doomsday."

Remade in 1979 by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski as the Count. This art house classic also comes as highly reccomended.

Shadow of the Vampire(1999) was a fictionalized account of the making of this picture, depicting the enigmatic Schreck as a real vampire, portrayed masterfully by Willen Dafoe. This is also very reccomended.

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