Thursday, June 26, 2008
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror
It's difficult to think of what can possibly be said now about F.W. Murnau's silent classic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. Based on one of the most famous horror novels in the world, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Murnau's film was the first adaptation of the vampire legend to the cinema, and a model and inspiration not only for every vampire tale to follow it, but for much of the horror genre in film. Considering its age and the extent to which its images and ideas have penetrated the popular culture discourse, the film has held up remarkably well. Pop culture tends to devour art, and any image or icon that passes into the popular vernacular tends to lose its aura of mystery and uniqueness, especially after enough time has passed for the various reiterations of this image to attain some prominence themselves. This deterioration still has yet to take place for Murnau's blood-sucking Count Orlok, played with a ghastly stiffness and creepiness by Max Schreck. Schreck's mimed performance, so famously horrifying, owes as much to his unnaturally tall, bony form and gaunt face as it does to his plodding movements and wide-eyed stare. It's a very physical performance, with Orlok embodied in every inch of the actor's body and movements. He's a horrifying figure, wispy and almost even fey but with a sinister allure anyway.
Clearly, Orlok is a powerful cinematic icon, one who has continued to exercise a dramatic pull on the genre of the horror film, so it's a shame that Murnau keeps him off-screen for so long. The story of Dracula may be familiar now, but this first adaptation treats the tale's developmental early stages at great length, unfortunately including a great deal of exposition that in a modern context seems largely unnecessary. It takes half an hour for Orlok to appear at all, before which the story focuses on the young real estate agent Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) and his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder). In E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire, a parodic dark comedy based on the making of Nosferatu, von Wangenheim is mercilessly mocked for his melodramatic acting, and the representation of his acting style in that film isn't even exaggerated too much, if at all. He's the ultimate silent movie ham, reacting to good news like a schoolboy skipping off to school, and to bad with moping gestures and eye-rolling, playing to the back row at every moment. He's the kind of actor who, when he sees a table full of food, widens his eyes, licks his lips, and runs gleefully to dig in. As a result, the scenes between Hutter and his wife, before Hutter goes off to Transylvania to conduct a transaction with the mysterious Count Orlok, are almost unwatchably saccharine, even though Schröder is far better in her role. Her Ellen looks vampiric from the very beginning of the film, with the same gaunt face, black-rimmed eyes, and wild stare as Orlok. She thus signals her inevitable doom right from her very first appearance, solely with the intensity of her emotional reactions and her sensitivity. She mourns for the "death" of flowers that her husband picked for her, and later she seems to sense Orlok's presence in ways that nobody else does besides his crazed servant Knock (Alexander Granach).
In fact, Ellen is a key figure in the film's first truly striking scene (which unfortunately comes about 40 minutes in, a not insignificant amount of time to wait for something interesting), in which Orlok assaults Hutter at the former's castle lair. Murnau cuts back and forth between this attack (mostly suggested through the projection of Orlok's sinister shadow on the wall) and scenes of Ellen back home, seized by nightmares and an inexplicable terror. The parallel editing between these two discrete events, taking place quite some distance apart, is especially powerful for the way it links Ellen and Orlok, making inevitable their eventual meeting in the film's final scene. At the end of the scene, Orlok looks back over his shoulder, casting his eyes towards the right side of the screen, and Murnau cuts away to a shot of Ellen, reaching her arms out towards the left edge of the screen, as though gesturing towards the vampire. The juxtaposition of these two shots give the distinct impression that Orlok is actually looking at Ellen, staring at her across vast gulfs of space with an unimaginable bloodlust. It's one of the film's most mysterious and haunting moments.
Of course, Orlok's desire for Ellen was already established before this, in the scene where the vampire catches a glimpse of a photo of her that Hutter carries. Orlok grasps the amulet containing this picture, bringing it up close to his face with his clawed fingers, and admiringly looks back at Hutter, telling him what a pretty neck his wife has. This line, with its obvious sexual undercurrents, is indicative of the way that Murnau plays up the sexuality of the vampire myth. This version of the Dracula story is unique, especially, for the way in which it makes the hero's transaction with the vampire seem like he's selling out his own wife for the monster's use. Immediately after the scene where the vampire praises Ellen's photo, he reiterates the terms of their bargain: he will be buying the abandoned house immediately across the street from Hutter's own home. Hutter has already left his uneasy wife alone to worry while he traveled a great distance, motivated only by greed. But in this scene it is apparent that what's at stake is not just a house back in Hutter's hometown, but the neck and blood of Ellen herself.
The crisp parallel editing of the Orlok/Ellen scene, which culminates in that meaningful cross-continental gaze between vampire and victim, is soon carried over into the second half of the film as Orlok races to realize his rendezvous with Hutter's wife. The entire second half of the film is thus structured on parallel editing of this kind, cutting between Orlok's journey by ship, Ellen waiting wistfully at home for Hutter's return, Knock's anxious time in jail awaiting his master, and the weakened Hutter's mad race to get to Ellen before Orlok does. Murnau's sense of pacing and dramatic tension occasionally slackens in these scenes, and the material with Knock seems entirely extraneous, especially since his character of the bug-eating servant isn't nearly as interesting or fleshed-out as it is in other variations on this tale. But even when the narrative temporarily goes slack, Murnau's brisk crosscutting between the different simultaneous events always promises a continuation of the action and a slow build-up of tension that finally explodes in the long sequence on board Orlok's ship.
This segment contains one of the film's most justifiably famous shots, with the camera positioned in a cargo hold and angled upwards at the vampire as he stalks by, walking with a strange sideways motion like a crab, his claws extended and his eyes glinting. But as creepy as Schreck is here, a handful of isolated shots of the ship itself are equally eerie. Murnau shoots the sailing vessel floating aimlessly, looking completely abandoned even before it really is depopulated by Orlok's efforts. In several shots, Murnau simply allows the boat to drift through the frame, a black silhouette seen from a distance with no activity on its decks, like a ghost ship gliding through the water. Another shot angles the camera up from the deck to catch the sunlight filtering through the sails above, a quietly beautiful shot that serves to further emphasize the ship's lifelessness; it's a shock (not to mention an anticlimax) when Murnau finally gives in and shows a few scenes of activity with the boat's crew. The scenes of Orlok's arrival in Hutter's town are similarly anticlimactic. There's something almost comical about the way he slinks into town, skulking through the main square while lugging a giant coffin under his arm, looking ridiculously undignified. This is doubtless the streak of silliness in Murnau's vampire that Merhige picked up on for Shadow of the Vampire. There's a real and very weird sense of the quotidian about Orlok, as in the early scene where he greets Hutter personally and explains the lack of servants by the late hour, as though he needs to justify why such a great personage should be doing his own chores. This winds up being even more unsettling, giving Orlok a warped human quality to play off against his more otherworldly aspects. A similar vibe runs through the scenes of his arrival, and he only manages to maintain some lordly dignity in the haunting shot where he arrives at his new home standing on a raft, the coffin still under his arm. Murnau shoots this arrival from a distance, capturing the dilapidated grandeur of this collapsing manse with Orlok's spindly form gliding towards it.
As a whole, Murnau's Nosferatu is a somewhat uneven masterpiece, if that term makes any sense. It's largely held together by the strength of a handful of iconic shots and images, often with long dull or purposeless stretches in between. The treatment of text is especially problematic, although not necessarily atypical for the silent era. The dialogue intertitles are relatively sparse and sparingly used, but Murnau makes extensive use of a variety of textual materials, including letters, books on the supernatural, ship's logs, and various other documents. This is doubtless inspired by the nature of Stoker's original epistolary novel, formed entirely from back and forth correspondence. But it's distracting when the film so often diverts from its wonderful images into lengthy text passages explaining various pieces of vampire lore or other expository details. When Murnau fills up the screen with such pseudo-scientific explanations of vampires, it's at least understandable in the context of the genre, but when he takes the opportunity to display Hutter's innocuous letter to his wife, in full, not just once but twice, one begins to suspect that he's either just filling up time or doesn't realize how these interruptions kill the narrative's momentum. Despite these imperfections, Nosferatu remains a horror classic for very good reason. There has never been a more memorable screen vampire than Max Schreck's Count Orlok, and in comparison to his raw, sensual performance even Bela's Lugosi's smooth, urbane version of the monster can't compare. Orlok is the iconic film vampire, a pure force of evil and unfettered desire, growing so rapturous (and ravenous) at the mere sight of blood that he can't resist breaking with decorum and sucking the blood from his houseguest's injured thumb. If Lugosi's later Dracula is a vampire of the heart or the head, Schreck's Orlok is purely a vampire of the stomach.