MY EVENING WITH NOSFERATU

Nobody can call me an old grump with no Halloween spirit.  Trick or Treat doesn’t happen until tomorrow night, but I’ve already got the candy bowl full and waiting.  Our Jack o’ Lantern is ready for all those uncertain little kids in costumes approaching our door, their parents standing behind them as they ring the doorbell and nervously hold out their bags.

 

 

Nope, I’m no Halloween hater.

I remember when I was a kid.  There was a house at the end of our street that didn’t like trick or treaters.  It was the Johnson place and it was sorely in need of some paint.  Old man Johnson lived there and he was as mean as they came.  He’d grumble and grouch at anyone that looked twice at him, and don‘t even think about stepping on his lawn.  All us kids figured that he ate worm sandwiches for lunch and frog legs for dinner.  That was one door none of us wanted to knock on Halloween night.

Mr. Johnson had big evil mouth like the vampire on the cover of my Sounds of Terror Halloween album that I bought from the local drug store when I was eight years old.  It took a month’s savings of allowance money to do it, and it was all kinds of awesome.  The first side of the record had scary stories.  The other side had a haunted house walk through and lots of creaking doors.  The rest was a bunch of different sound effects like blood curdling screams, demonic laughter, grave diggers, thunder claps, squeaking bats, rattling chains, ghostly moans, howling wolves, and evil laughter.

 

 

Nostalgia plays a big part of enjoying my Halloweens.  I might be as ancient now as he was then, but I’m no old man Johnson.  I’m still that kid who put his Sounds of Horror album on the record player and acted out the story in his bedroom, reacting to all the sound effects and pretending to be in a little horror movie of the imagination.

And horror movies, of course, play a part in my Halloween tradition.

The night is cold and frosty.  There’s a fire in the wood stove.  And this year, I’ve got a trilogy of films with a very specific theme.  F.W. Murnau’s 1922 symphony of horror, Nosferatu, its 1979 remake, and then a wickedly clever movie from 2001 about the making of that old German silent masterpiece.

Murnau’s silent film was based on the Bram Stoker novel Dracula, but the title and character names were all changed because Stoker’s widow charged, probably not unreasonably, that her husband’s estate was being ripped off.  Ironically, in the long run Murnau was the making of Stoker, because Nosferatu inspired Hollywood to start making all those dozens of other Dracula films.

None of them would be as artistic or unforgettable.

 

 

Nosferatu is a better title anyway.  Say Dracula and you almost smile.  Say Nosferatu and you look you’ve eaten a lemon.

To watch this is to see the vampire movie before it had really seen itself.  This is the story of Dracula before he was buried alive in cliches, jokes, TV skits, cartoons and more than 30 other films.

 

 

Okay, my bowl of popcorn is buttered, my bulldog is snoring against my feet, the lights are turned off, and the moon is shining outside.

The movie starts.

Nosferatu begins in Bremen, Germany.   Hutter, a real estate agent, is assigned by his boss to visit the remote castle of Count Orlok, who wants to buy an abandoned house in town.

My favorite part of the story, whether in Nosferatu or Dracula, is the journey to the vampire’s lair in the Carpathian Mountains.  These flickering black and white images foretell doom.  In the village inn, all of the customers fall silent when Hutter mentions Orlok’s name.  Outside, horses bolt and run.  A hyena snarls before slinking away.  Somebody puts a book beside Hutter’s bed that explains vampire lore:  they must sleep, he learns, in earth from the graveyards of plague victims from the Black Death.

You know what, forget the story.  Anybody that’s seen Dracula already knows it.  So I’ll just note my impressions of the movie.

 

 

Max Schreck, who plays the vampire, avoids all those theatrics that would distract from all the later performances by others.  This vampire doesn’t come across like a flamboyant actor but like a man suffering from a dread curse.  Schreck plays the count more like an animal than a human being, and he is absolutely dreadful to look at.

This isn’t like our modern handsome, sleek vampires.  The head is shaved and he has bat ears.  His face and skull are clown white.  The eyes are sunken.  He has talons for hands, fingernails like spears that have grown in the tomb.  Most extraordinary are the fangs.  They are in the middle of his mouth like a rodent.

 

 

On a side note, the word schreck is the German word for fright or terror.  The name was also taken for Disney’s animated ogre.  They shortened to the more easily managed Shrek, but there you go.  A little movie trivia.

I’m also thinking of the buried sexuality in these vampire stories.  They were all written with ironclad 19th century Victorian values in mind.  The buried message of Dracula is that sex is dangerous to society.  The Victorians feared venereal disease the way we fear AIDS.  Vampirism was used as a metaphor for intercourse, and those predator vampires live without a mate, stalking their victims like a rapist.

 

 

Is this movie scary in the modern sense?  No, not at all.

But I admire it more for its artistry and ideas, its atmosphere and images, than for its ability to manipulate my emotions.   It doesn’t scare us, it haunts us.  It doesn’t show vampires jumping out of the shadows at us.  It shows that evil grows in the shadows, nourished on death.

In a sense, this film is about all of the things we worry about at three in the morning, things like cancer, war, disease, madness.  It suggests these dark fears in the very style of its visuals.  Much of the film is shot in shadow.  I’m also noticing that the corners of the screen are used more than is ordinary.  Characters lurk or cower there, and it’s a rule of composition in movies that tension is created when the subject of a shot is removed from the center of the frame.

 

 

Things are wrapping up now.  It‘s a fairly short film, maybe 80 minutes, and don’t let the fact that Nosferatu is silent chase you off.  It’s more effective for being silent.  It is commonplace for snooty film historians to say that silent movies are more “dreamlike,” but what does that mean?

In Nosferatu, it means that the characters are confronted with frightening images and denied the freedom to talk them away.  Things that live only at night do not need to talk.  Human speech brightens the shadows and makes a room seem normal.

There is no sound in a nightmare.

Okay, good flick and time for the second movie.  It’s a remake of Nosferatu from 1979 by one of my favorite directors, Werner Herzog.

 

 

The journey to Count Orlok’s castle takes a lot more time than in the original, longer in fact than in any of the Dracula films.  Hutter doesn’t travel by road.  He goes by horse path until there is no longer any path to follow.  The depiction of nature feels fearful and awesome, not so much uplifting as it is remorseless.  It’s an effect of the quality of photography that the scenery kind of seeps into your bones.  The earth looks cold and dirty.  There isn’t a lot of green and everything seems wet.  It’s beautiful to look at, but Herzog makes no effort to attract or visually coddle us.  Clouds are low and drift like water, just a little too fast, as if God were sucking in his breath.  Hutter travels deeper and deeper into the cold gray flint of the craggy mountains.

Some might say this journey goes on too long and that nothing really happens during it.  I wish the whole movie were this beautifully empty.

 


 

I don’t think Herzog had a particularly large budget for this remake of Nosferatu, but he brings that unique filmmaking signature of his that makes things interesting.  In his films Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, he took his actors and film crew deep into the Amazon jungles.  He believes in “the voodoo of locations.”  A rain forest just outside a comfortable city would have felt wrong.  The actors would project a different energy if they knew that they weren’t buried in real danger.  We would be able to sense it.

So in Nosferatu, he filmed many of his shots using the exact same locations that Murnau used in the original.  He traveled in search of arresting imagery.  The mummies at the start of the movie are from Mexico, the mountains are the real Carpathians in Transylvania, the castles ruins are in Czechoslovakia and Germany.  The city with canals is in the Netherlands.

Herzog wanted his Nosferatu to be haunted by the earlier one.  He wanted his actors to stand where their silent counterparts had stood.  He wanted that energy.

 

 

To say of someone that they were born to play a vampire is a strange compliment, but if compare the two versions of Nosferatu you might agree with me that only Klaus Kinski could have competed with Max Schreck’s performance.

My first impression of Isabelle Adjani, the French beauty who plays opposite Kinski, is that she is too obviously gorgeous to be believable.  But then it occurred to me that she never really played ordinary women in her movies.  Her facial perfection always gave her the curious quality of seeming to exist on an ethereal plane.  Her skin was too white and polished as if it were made of porcelain.  Nice casting, Herr Herzog.  You wanted her to be a pure object for Count Orlok’s fangs.

 

 

I’ll take Count Orlok any day over Count Dracula.  Both bear a terrible cross, but at least Dracula lives in a wonderful sphere.  He is accompanied by the music of the masters and dresses in red and black, the elegant colors of De Sade.  He’ll exchange courtesies with you knowing that sometime soon he’ll need to drink your blood.  Actually, that’s probably an embarrassing thing to know about someone else.

No such luck for Count Orlok.  There is nothing pleasant about him.  He is repulsively rat-like and doesn’t have a cape to swirl.

Man, Kinski is doing a great job.  The count has a monstrous ego, of course, but Kinski as an actor has absolutely none.  There is never a moment when we sense this actor enjoying what a fine juicy cornpone role he has.  Kinski had grown far too old inside to play the count like that.  He makes his body shrivel and his skull transparent, so the role can flicker through.

 

 

This isn’t for gore hounds wanting a horror film.  There are plenty of those movies for people who like to yuk it up and make barfing sounds, God love ’em, but they’re not the audience for Nosferatu.  This movie isn’t even scary.  It’s slow and positively meditative at times, but I’m telling you this remake has some of the most evocative images centered around the idea of the vampire that I have ever seen.

That’s why I’m not really mentioning the plot.  The details of the Dracula story has been told too many times and lost its meaning anyway.  This movie is all about the mood and style of vampirism and the terrible seductive pity of it all.

 

 

I wholeheartedly recommend this remake of Nosferatu.  Just cleanse yourself of the expectation that things will happen.  Get with the flow. This movie works like an old record album.  You can’t love the music until you’ve heard the words so many times that they’re just sounds.

Be forewarned though, it’s in German with English subtitles.  It would be just fine with no subtitles.  I understand German, but that‘s not what I mean.  It could be in any language.  We don‘t need to know what the vampire is saying because he is always saying the same thing.  He is saying that he‘s speaking with you now as a meaningless courtesy but in a few moments he’ll be draining the life out of you.

Nosferatu, 1922.  The best of all vampire movies.  Its eerie power only increases with age.  Watching it tonight, I didn‘t think about stories or special effects.  I thought:  this movie believes in vampires.

The third and last movie in tonight’s trilogy, Shadow of the Vampire, has an explanation for that.

Max Schreck really was a vampire.

 

 

This film does three things at the same time.  It makes a vampire movie of its own, tells an imaginative backstage story about a classic horror masterpiece, and then shows us the measures that a director will take to realize his vision.

Murnau is a man obsessed and utterly uninterested in human lives other than his own.  He’s actually a royal asshole who thinks his work justifies everything.  He stalks his sets, lectures his crew on the struggle to create visual poetry, and pities himself about the fools he has to work with and the price he has to pay for his art.

One of those prices is the Faustian deal he’s secretly made with Schreck:  perform in my movie, and you can dine on the blood of the leading lady.

 

 

After we meet key members of the cast and crew in Berlin, the production moves to the wilds of Czechoslovakia, where Schreck awaits.  Murnau explains that the mysterious, unknown man is a method actor so dedicated to his craft that he lives in character around the clock and must never be spoken to, except as Count Orlock.

 

 

Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck does a masterful job and earned an Oscar nomination for this role.  He is bald, pointy-eared, and skeletal, playing the venomous and long-suffering vampire with a hilarious appetite.  When he prematurely dines on the cinematographer, Murnau shouts in rage that he still needed the cinematographer and will now have to go to Berlin and hire another one.  He begs Schreck to keep his appetite in check until the final scene.

Schreck clicks his enormously long fingernails and muses aloud, “I do not think we need . . . the writer.”

I laughed out loud at this.

Inside comedy.  The star is hungry, and because he is the star, he can make demands.  It wouldn’t be the first time a star has eaten a writer alive.

 

 

Actually, I laughed at lot watching this movie.  It is very funny at times.  And it really does an uncanny job of re-creating the visual feel of Murnau’s classic film.  There are shots that look the way moldy basements smell.

This movie is immensely enjoyable.

Too enjoyable maybe.  The film is already nearing its end and I’ve barely written anything.

Right now, Catherine McCormack is on screen.  I remember her from the film Dangerous Beauty, and here she plays Greta, the doomed diva whose throat Schreck’s fangs will plunge into, for real, in the final scene.  She doesn’t know this, of course, and is mainly concerned about her closeups.

I want to end this blog with stinging, insightful wit, but I’m afraid this Nosferatu marathon is catching up with me and I’m puttering to a sleepy conclusion.  Thankfully, both the movie being made and the movie I’m watching are building toward the final shot.  At the crucial scene, Schreck is moving in for the bite, and Greta’s eyes stray to the mirror and notice her co-star has no reflection.

 

 

I won’t tell you the ending, but it leaves you a little disturbed and wondering:  who is the real monster in this? The frail, greedy, yet almost sympathetic vampire or his cinematic creator?

I’ll ponder that question for the one minute it will take to shut everything off and toddle to my waiting bed.

Happy Halloween, world.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “MY EVENING WITH NOSFERATU

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