Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Wendigo Meets NOSFERATU (1922)

My friend Wendigo has seen nearly ninety years worth of vampire movies, but when all is said and done, he still considers the first one the best. While he's the first one to say that the vampire(and vampire movies) can be all things to all people, he still feels that F. W. Murnau's seminal silent gets closest to the essence of the vampire -- the bogeyman in the night. The legendary Max Schreck's verminous interpretation of the role best approximates folklore's image of the vampire, and it's closer to Bram Stoker's description of Count Dracula than many people suspect or give it credit for. Just add a moustache, Wendigo says, and Schreck is Stoker's vampire come to, er, life. At least it comes closer than the evening wear and opera cape of Deane, Balderston, Browning and Lugosi. Schreck's Graf Orlok is meant to look unnatural and inhuman because the character's supposed to be inhuman, spawned as he was from "the seed of Belial."

Nosferatu, of course, is infamously an uncredited, unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's novel, a criminal enterprise in the eyes of Stoker's widow, who strove to have Murnau's film wiped from the face of the earth. But despite the Stoker superstructure Nosferatu is very much a Germanic vampire film reflecting Germanic vampire lore. It differs from the Stoker story by being set a century or so in Germany's past rather than during Stoker's approximate present. It ditches many Stoker elements like the vampire's invisibility in mirrors and his vulnerability in running water. Count Orlok casts reflections and crosses streams without second thoughts. One of the biggest deviations from Stoker, of course, is the climax, which requires a virgin sacrifice that never occurred to the Irish author. The change may have been an attempt to conceal the movie's source material, but Wendigo argues that it also brings Germanic lore to the surface to give this German film a distinctive national character.


Often imitated, never equaled

Murnau and his writers ditch a lot of characters and minimizes others -- his Van Helsing counterpart, the "Paracelsian" Dr. Bulwer, has very little to do and never confronts the vampire -- and does without a lot of Stoker's plot. There's no Lucy Westenra counterpart, for instance, and Wendigo argues that the necessity of Ellen Hutter (Greta Schroeder) -- the film's Mina Harker -- offering herself to the vampire as an attractive female renders a Lucy redundant. Orlok is in fact relatively uninterested in women; there aren't any "brides" at his castle, for instance. All of this may be meant to make Ellen's sacrifice unique, but are we to assume that Orlok hasn't attacked women -- or at least virgins -- until that point? Wendigo doesn't necessarily think so, but he does think it was important for Murnau not to show Orlok attacking other women. To make her sacrifice even more important, Orlok is shown having no other vulnerabilities than to daylight -- and this happens to be the first vampire story, Wendigo claims, to make daylight fatal to the undead. Holy symbols mean nothing to him, and he can stroll past a church with his coffin in his arms with no ill effects. That requires Murnau to minimize the role of his surrogate Van Helsing, who really seems to know no more about vampires than that they resemble venus flytrap plants.


Ellen Hutter: the original vampire fiction fan
The most important instance of Murnau's creative infidelity to Stoker for future vampire cinema is his use of Mr. Knock, his Renfield counterpart. Nosferatu is the first adaptation of Dracula, to our knowledge, to link Renfield to both Dracula and Harker by making Knock Hutter's employer and the man who arranges for Orlok's emigration from Transylvania. It also sets a pretty high benchmark for future Renfields thanks to Alexander Granach's energetically crazed performance. Next to Max Schreck, Granach is the most memorable performer in the picture. He was certainly my favorite when I first saw the film as a kid and assumed he was the comedy relief. In a different way, Gustav von Wagenheim also sets the standard for future clueless buttheaded Harkers with his giddily stupid performance as the hapless Hutter. Wendigo says that there wouldn't be as moronic a Harker until Keanu Reeves seventy years later. That's a grim tribute if ever there was one.


"Hey, Mr. Knock! You are a funny guy!"


To the present day, Max Schreck serves as a template for a certain feral subspecies of vampire. While it's tempting to give most of the credit for his performance to Murnau's makeup artists and costumers, there's a physicality to Schreck's work, to his bearing and the way he moves, that really sells Orlok's unsettling eeriness. It's no wonder that people ever since have imagined that Schreck was in fact a supernatural creature, and that an entire film could be made around that premise. But it's also unfair to the real man, who didn't do as many movies as he might or should have.




Actors aside, Nosferatu is Murnau's show, and the director's pictorial gifts make it a picture that Wendigo and I can return to constantly to discover new details or appreciate previously unappreciated nuances of composition. We most recently watched Kino's richly restored DVD, but we've like the movie ever since we first saw it on public television in battered prints that gave the characters their Stoker names. There are qualities of action and editing that generations of treatment could not obscure. Seeing a more complete version of the film with more authentic title cards is occasionally disappointing -- we missed the generic simplicity of The Book of the Vampires, that Gideon Bible of Transylvania, amid the verbiage of the book's true title, Of Vampires, Terrible Phantoms and the Seven Deadly Sins. But it was also a treat to hear the film's original soundtrack, see something like its original tinting, and watch things move at something closer to the speed that Murnau intended.




Even as a ragged, fuzzy film on TV, Nosferatu disturbed Wendigo when he first watched it, on a night when he was the only person awake in his house. He hadn't read Dracula yet and hadn't even seen the Lugosi film, so he knew the vampire only from a handful of Hammers and a few other films. Orlok was the freakiest thing he'd ever seen, not just for the way he looked but for the way he moved, whether aided by an undercranked camera or not. All of it gave him the creeps in a way no horror film had done before, especially given that he didn't yet know how the effects could work to make Orlok spring bolt upright from his coffin on the boat. If anything, the speeded-up motion of misprojected silent film added to the unsettling eerieness. It genuinely frightened him and gave him a bad dream later, and that set his standard for an effective horror film.


Wendigo finds it hard to believe me when I say that I've hardly ever been scared by horror movies, and he's asked me pointedly why I don't think a film like this is a failure if it didn't actually frighten me -- a horror film is meant to horrify, after all. In this particular case, what I appreciate is a sense of the uncanny that doesn't frighten me or have me looking over the shoulder as I leave the theoretical theater but still affects me on a level somewhere between the intellectual and the emotional. Nosferatu inspires a sense of unease that I don't equate with fear and is, if anything, augmented by a film's age and the knowledge that everyone involved is dead. Being horrified isn't the same thing as being frightened -- it doesn't fill me with a sense of personal danger or empathetic fear for the people on screen -- but it's still a profound (as in "from the depths") experience. And whether you prefer to be horrified, frightened, or simply awed by cinematic virtuosity, Murnau's symphony of terrors will probably always satisfy you.

2 comments:

Jonny said...

Hey Samuel. Great film and I need to go back and revisit it. Have you ever seen Shadow of the Vampire (2000)? It basically recounts the story of the making of the film with John Malkovich and Willem Defoe playing Max Schreck. Crux of the film is that Schreck is actually a vampire. It's quite an interesting film especially for fans of Nosferatu.

Samuel Wilson said...

Jonny, we alluded to Shadow in the review without calling it by name. Wendigo and I both enjoyed Dafoe's performance but I personally felt it was mean-spirited toward Murnau -- though I suppose the film couldn't have been made with a real vampire if the director weren't a bit of a creep himself, even if the real Murnau presumably wasn't.