Halloween may have come and gone, but that does not mean you cannot conjure up a ghoulish treat for your nearest and dearest this Christmas, as the BFI are just about to release the horrific classic Nosferatu on bluray! Having cast an eye over this new release, our very own Peter Walsh offers a few words on a popular classic.
Is Nosferatu the most widely seen feature-length silent film ever made? It is difficult to say without digging into the patchy international box office figures available since 1922, but you cannot argue with the accessibility of the film to modern audiences. Accessible that is on three distinct counts.
Firstly the film is frequently toured around and the UK and the world, being a popular choice with both silent film accompanists, and with venues keen to screen a horror film that’s a step away from the norm. Five venues in and around Bristol have so far hosted separate screenings of Murnau’s eerie horror film in 2015, and by all accounts they all pulled in good audiences. Further to that there are dozens of DVD’s available of the film, over thirty on Amazon.co.uk alone, all of various lengths, played at any number of incorrect projection speeds, and more often than not being accompanied by a lunatic on rickety casio keyboard. Much of a silent film minefield as this may prove to be, the film has always been in the corner of the eye of anyone who’s stepped into HMV or Fopp in the last ten years, and while being of dubious quality, the common price tag of £3 is enough to snare even the stingiest of curious film fans.
Secondly it is a recognised pillar of the silent film canon, a staple of film studies courses as well as any Introduction to Silent Cinema book worth its salt. Further to that it’s a story that is collectively well known, whether it’s the broader myth of the Vampyre, from the classic Bela Lugosi to the teen-swoon-worthy Edward Cullen, or even down to the specific arc of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Whether they are in fashion or not, vampires will always sell, and there will always be a draw to stories of them. Not only that, for viewers unfamiliar with the conventions and style of silent cinema, the inroad of general direction of the narrative is a welcome inroad, especially for an approach to narrative filmmaking which can seem be a bit disconnected or abstract to modern eyes.
And thirdly, and perhaps most obviously, Nosferatu is an incredibly good and stimulating film to watch! Being the hard-bitten silent film fan means it’s all too easy to pour scorn on the perceived canon, but the opportunity to re-view this new bluray release from the BFI, it’s great to rediscover a film which is in parts striking, but also increasingly unnerving and uncanny. The way in which the character Knock/Renfield laughs, the way Count Orlock/Dracula pores over the occult land deeds Hutter/Harker brings him, and the way in which the property agent gleefully throws away a tome of ancient folklore, scoffing at the threat of the undead that stalk the land. These are figures and scenes we recognise from countless adaptations and spins on this familiar tale, but this original screen manifestation lives on in the memory of those who choose to see it.
The case is perhaps to be made for FW Murnau’s unique approach, the director who brought the eye of trained art historian to his production, who simultaneously climbed the ranks of the German studio system in the shadow of Doctor Caligari, and was otherwise active during a key revival of German Romanticism. The last point is astutely made by Christopher Frayling in a short interview, which accompanies the BFI’s new release, and visual reference is made in particular to the works of artist Caspar David Friedrich whose eerie landscapes can be tied directly to Murnau’s film.
Another case is to be made for the unnerving influence of producer and art designer Albin Grau, whose involvement in the strange and dark occultism of the early 20th century shines through in his production design. The aforementioned occult land deeds, covered in arcane symbols and schematics, is one obvious example, the rattish and disgusting appearance of Count Orlock equally came from Grau’s imagination. This matched by Murnau’s evocative use of scenery, expressionistic without being abstract, and consistently shot on location, albeit the outlandish medieval locations of deepest darkest Slovakia, standing in for the unnamed Transylvania.
Where many previously released DVDs are dogged, clipped, battered and censored, this new bluray from the BFI is complete and shown at the appropriate variable speeds. A high-definition scan of the Photoplay print brings out the rich detail of the film, in darker contrast to some releases, and with some scratches and scuffs which beget the film’s age without obscuring or distracting from the story itself. The film’s original toning is also intact, justly reflecting that Orlock is only seen at night (tinted blue), while also bringing life to the fictional city of Wisborg. Of particular value to anglophone viewers is also that the film’s many interesting intertitles, including intercuts of letters, books, and diverse documents, are presented wholly in English, but in the same cursive and evocative manner as the original German intertitles. A small but highly effective touch for those not fluent in modern Teutonic.
The score by James Bernard, accomplished composer of most of Hammer Horror’s key films, brings his knowledge of terrifying cinema to bear on a composition which glides between three key themes around Orlock, Hutter, and Ellen. Performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic, the rousing and powerful accompaniment evokes the film’s complete title in presenting Nosferatu as “A Symphony of Horror”.
A truly accessible film, despite its horrific and unnerving tone and setting, this new BFI release is one of the best places to encounter this brilliant film. Provided of course that you have a bluray player!