One Hundred Years Of Evil

Film

 

‘The absence of love is the most abject pain…’

Last night I attended a centenary screening of a masterpiece of German expressionist cinema, Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’, with live orchestral accompaniment. There’s nothing new in this; many scores have been written for the film, one of the best being by James Bernard, Hammer’s greatest composer. It’s easy to believe that the film is 100 years old; it feels like an ancient artefact dug out of the ground in some lonely, cursed Transylvanian spot.

You could not call the film’s language clichéd because it exists before the clichés around screen vampirism began, but it is non-naturalistic in the extreme. The German actor Max Schrek was a strange, elusive man and his performance as Count Orlok, Dracula in all but name, is one for the ages. His starved, ethereal appearance remains haunting, less for his affliction of vampirism than his disturbing stillness. There’s a sense that he taints everything with evil.

The film truncates the book to concentrate on the idea that vampirism represents the triumph of sickness and death as it spreads plague through the town, so much so that the vampire’s destruction feels perfunctory and not much of a victory for good at all.

The film’s symbolism smacks you in the eye every few seconds, but somehow overpowers you. A live score of atonal plonks, thuds, whispers and at one point, a megaphone and an accordion, created unease in even the happier moments, but felt like a separate entity to the film.

Afterwards, my neighbour lent me her copy of Herzog’s 1979 remake of ‘Nosferatu’ for comparison (they’re the kind of neighbours I love – we don’t lend each other cups of sugar). While a great many of the shots are exact reproductions of the original scenes, Herzog goes further, expanding Lucy Harker’s role and energising the film’s final act. Renfield is once again afflicted with a deranged laugh even before his madness but Mina’s role is almost non-existent. Herzog’s vision of the bat and rat-infested town is far more apocalyptic, but is the end result any more effective than the original?

Actually, no. Klaus Kinski adds a melancholy dimension to the undead count, portraying him as a phantom driven by the bitter suffering of loneliness, but he lacks the haunting ethereality of Schrek. It’s a personal taste; I’ve always hated attempts to humanise the count. Popol Vuh’s score consist of lingering eerie chords and the film works on its own terms, but considering Murnau’s film is a century old it still wins out in the end. Nothing comes close until Christopher Lee’s urbane, sinister Dracula sweeps down the staircase in 1958.

12 comments on “One Hundred Years Of Evil”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    Interesting supposition for the use of Expressionism in ‘Nosferatu’ and other German films of the period — that is, the suggestion or ‘sense’ of something rather than a realistic approach which was already well established in the arts — was not so much a creative philosophy, as it was a necessity.

    Germany was in financial ruin after WWI and its studios didn’t have the funds to create realistic period sets and costumes, so the ‘suggestion’ of a castle using shadows, angles and perspective was obviously far less expensive than constructing an actual set. And, in fact, whether intended or not, these ‘suggestions’ are more effective in conveying anxiety and fear and of course, became standard fare in the horror genre — and especially the Dracula films — for which it became a seminal influence.

    Also interesting is that it very nearly did not ultimately have this impact or, for that matter, even make it to that centenary screening. Murnau couldn’t secure the rights to make the film from Bram Stoker’s widow but went ahead (with obvious alterations) anyway and was promptly sued for copyright infringement. The court ruled in her favor and ordered all copies of the film destroyed. Fortunately, this was both after the film was shown to acclaim in Berlin and after several copies had already been shipped to the US pre-trial.

  2. Joan says:

    That image of Nosferatu is enough to keep you awake well into the night. I watched The Shadow of a Vampire, where Willem Dafoe played Max Schrek,and found that it was very disturbing the way he played him, I know it was fiction but still it made you wonder, and shudder. My personal favourite Dracula was Bela Lugosi, a very tragic and sad actor. I loved the portrayal of him in Ed Wood by Martin Landau, it got him a deserved Oscar. My Husband loved the Christopher Lee films, and dragged me to see some. But Lee never spoke, just sort of growled. I always pictured the Count from the book being very articulate and perhaps charming. When I first read Dracula as a teenager it kept me awake picturing him crawling down walls, what a dreadful picture!

  3. Bob Low says:

    Herzog’s version is one of the few re makes of a classic film that does justice to the original, even though Murnau’s wins out, inevitably. Herzog has some ingenious touches of his own, particularly the way that the Count’s castle is clearly seen from the outside as ruin, but Harker perceives it as a grand old dwelling, presumably as a result of some glamour cast over him by the Count. The apocalyptic arrival of the plague in the Harker’s home town is also brilliantly done.

  4. Joel says:

    i had never been scared of dracula, until i saw max schrek and had nightmares for a couple weeks…once i did see nosferatu (as an adult), i loved everything about it.

    @joan-i also thought “the shadow of the vampire” was really well done, and willem dafoe was very disturbing.

    i also enjoyed gary oldman—both as the sexy vampire, and the decreipt, otherwordly count.

  5. Paul C says:

    Many years ago at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle I watched Nosferatu with live music – a very eerie experience which enhanced the strange quality of the film. I also saw Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks and The General with Buster Keaton with live music – sadly they have stopped such performances which is a great shame. You find that you really have to focus on the film and therefore enjoy it more. I’d like to see more films with live music but opportunities are rare.

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    Speaking of music to accompany ‘Nosferatu’ — or in the immortal words of John Cleese: ‘And now for something completely different’ — do try the 1998 version with the late American actor David Carradine’s introduction and the soundtrack ‘synced’ to songs by the American gothic/metal band appropriately called Type O Negative. Strangely effective (unless you absolutely hate the music).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PH7L4V-3VxA

  7. A Holme says:

    I think it was 1982 at Theatr Clwyd where I saw Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’ with full live orchestra conducted by Carl Davis. It was an once in a lifetime experience of a difficult film enhanced by a superb score.

  8. Paul C says:

    I envy you the Abel Gance Napoleon. There’s a wonderful book called The Parade’s Gone By by Kevin Brownlow about silent cinema which includes a long interview with Gance about the making of this film.

    This book is a real treasury of interviews with silent screen legends and features many fascinating b/w photographs. A marvellous volume I never tire of reading. Well worth tracking down a copy.

  9. Gary Locke says:

    I saw “Napoleon” in Boston on November 10, 1981 – the day Gance died. The orchestra was conducted by Carmine Coppola. At the conclusion, the orchestra played “La Marseillaise” and many in the audience sang along. It was an unforgettable experience.

    Side note: I walked over to buy a program and, by chance, encountered then Boston Mayor Kevin White who was loudly complaining about the cost of the program to the poor bastard tasked with selling them. White never did get one. I still have mine.

  10. Stu-I-Am says:

    ‘Movie nights’ have become a major trend for US and Canadian orchestras and of course there’s the ‘Films in Concert’ series at the Royal Albert Hall, though these are mostly classics and blockbusters. I would think with the LSO’s history of recording film tracks dating back more than 80 years and having been dubbed the ‘perfect film orchestra,’ it might consider something along these lines with great silent epic film scores. Although there is always the difficulty of arrangements for the required continuous play (versus the usual ‘cues’ in a film track) and the effort often required for proper synchronisation — with everyone getting through to the end of a film together. But ‘hope springs eternal.’

  11. snowy says:

    ‘Nosferatu’ is OK, but it’s not a cross-dressing jewel thief who flies about in a private airship with a harem of hench-boys to satisfy her every whim, while she outwits the Chief Detective, [and tries to get off with his sister], is it?

    Well it wouldn’t be, that had already been made 7 years earlier*.

    The Herzog remake while decent, has an impossible job to escape from under the weight of 50 years of interpretations that set an almost absolute rigid template of what a vampire is. [And it’s Herzog, nice to look at, but not exactly action-packed.]

    ‘The Shadow of a Vampire’ is a very, very interesting idea, but the film is a bit of a tease as it never come to a satisfactory climax, in any sense. The acting is a bit clunky and if fails to decide if it is a flat out horror film or some sort of drama/doc**.

    [I kept expecting Eddie Izzard to break the ‘Fourth Wall’ and make sure everybody was following the plot…. “Right… He’s dead, She’s a junkie and those two are so far ‘in the closet’ they get their suits made in Narnia; got it now?”]


    [* It’s on YouTube search for ‘Filibus’]

    [** The big flaw of ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’, which should nave been an absolute hoot, but wasn’t.]

  12. Helen+Martin says:

    Snowy, the in the closet line is absolutely priceless. You just know that we will all search YouTube for Filibus.

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