Nosferatu & Me

When people talk about Dracula, it is generally in a more abstract sense. They aren’t necessarily referring to Bela Lugosi’s Universal Monsters portrayal of the ominous figure (though that probably would be the version that people most associate with the character) and they won’t necessarily be referring to Christopher Lee’s version from the slightly campier Hammer Horror movies. What they refer to is more of an idea, a force, or a presence, not unlike the Boogeyman. There is something lasting in the mythos of the famed vampire, which set the rules for vampire lore to come, but also something malleable that twists to fit our more human narrative. This is why vampire portrayals in movies can range from the gruesomely dark take of Lugosi, to the romantically wounded Gary Oldman (in Coppola’s 1992 adaptation), to Robert Pattison’s more-abusive-Romeo-type-vampire that took the tween nation by storm in Twilight. One thing that connects most modern telling’s of vampire stories is that, more or less, the vampires all appear to be human. They are not monstrosities, but people who can make their way comfortably in the world and who are trying to navigate the barrier between human/undead and how to deal with their immortality in a world that is far too mortal. 


Nosferatu is the film that introduced the public to Dracula. It also is a miracle that a version of the movie even survives to this day. The film, released in 1922, did not seek out proper licensing for the Bram Stoker book Dracula (written in 1897) and the film studio that made Nosferatu was subsequently sued after the release of the movie and all prints were ordered to be burned. Luckily copies of prints had already been mailed all over the world and the film survived because of the fans dedicated to copying the film and keeping it alive. Nosferatu truly could be considered the first cult film, as a small but fanatical group of people copying and sharing the film are the only reason it is alive today (when around 2/3'rds of all silent films have been lost to time). 


On a more personal note, Nosferatu scares the shit out of me. It was probably one of the first silent films I ever watched, and it's haunting imagery struck me as discordant and creepy in a way that modern films don't get close to. I don't think this is all by virtue of the film (though, Nosferatu is full of virtues) but because of the age and style of the film. It was still a time when colored film was used to convey certain emotions. Nosferatu in particular uses a yellow film to represent the daytime, while the standard black & white is used to shoot day for night. The sepia tone that comes from the daytime scenes is supposed to be light and frivolous, but it also gives the movie a haunting sheen that makes reality, even during the day, seem slightly askew. The actors used in the film are overtly expressive (as was normal for silent films), but their features are also wildly exuberant. In particular, the old man that plays Renfield comes off as an insane man far before he is even supposed to be insane, with a menacing laugh (visually, that is) and darting eyes that set the viewer on edge. And of course, Max Schreck visually dissolves into the monster he is supposed to be playing, to the point where I was convinced for years that maybe F W Murnau had indeed found a member of the living dead to play his Dracula (before seeing the mediocre Shadow of a Vampire). It is now easier to look-up and find out that Schreck was just a regular actor with an impressive list of films, but without this knowledge of silent German cinema, Schreck becomes some sort of mystery: a man that doesn't quite look like a man, and who seems to move the way I would imagine a 1,000-year old creature might move. 


What brought up this look back at Nosferatu was a recent screening at my local, humble independent theater of Nosferatu with soundtrack played live by the Austin-based band, Invincible Czars (if a screening is playing near you, I highly recommend attending). I would not only get to see a film I've loved since childhood at a theater (how many silent films really play at theaters anymore?), but I would also get to see it with a crowd of people to see how others react to this thing I find so horrifying. The new soundtrack I was a little dubious about. 


I have seen other remastered soundtracks for silent films out before, namely one for Metropolis and Coal Chamber's one for Nosferatu, but the idea of a modernized soundtrack never quite sat right with me and I was worried that it would disrupt the fear and anxiety that comes along with being transported so far back in time. If old houses are frightening because of their sheer age and that idea that something nefarious MIGHT have happened there at some point in time, then covering the house in neon lights and pumping in MIDI tracks through the sound-system might ruin the esthetic of said 'haunted house'. Conversely, covering a 1922 film with electric guitars, voice samples, and general musical ambiance not dreamed of until the past couple of decades might detract from the strange 'otherness' that comes from watching a horror movie full of people that are most assuredly dead. As with most horror, it is the history that you don't know that is the scariest part. 


My anxieties over the soundtrack for Nosferatu were mostly wrong but slightly right. While the updated soundtrack did feel strange to listen to, compared to the ghostly echoes of the original piano score being played out solitarily, making the score an ensemble piece with so many moving parts gave the film a richness and textuality that the original could never have achieved (because of the limitations of film at the time, I mean). It became a chance to experience a familiar film from a whole new perspective and it was highly effective. If I had to say one negative thing about the experience, I think the anachronistic music playing over this old film unintentionally creates a certain kind of comic tension. 


There is a scene where Nosferatu, newly arrived to his new homeland, carries a coffin through the streets to make it to his new town. While in the past this scene would have appeared as a man carrying a significant amount of weight as if it were nothing, it now looks like Schreck schlepping around an awkwardly sized box through the streets trying to seem sneaky. The crowd laughed the first time this imagery happened, and I admit that I did too (it does look rather strange at first). The upsetting part was when some of the crowd continued to laugh every time Schreck appeared on screen holding the coffin, as if it we were watching a B-movie that had to rely on cheap effects, rather than an early masterpiece of cinema, from a time where they were severely limited in what and how they could film special effects of any sort. 


Nosferatu is still one of my favorite silent films, if not one of my favorite horror movies ever made. It was interesting to see it from a whole new sonic perspective, but also interesting to see how some people in the audience (really, not a lot of the audience were laughing at the previous scene) were dismissive about something that I find so upsettingly effecting. Throughout the history of Dracula, the character has moved further and further away from the monstrosity of Max Schreck (save for Werner Herzog's 1979 remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre) and have moved to make the character into a romantic icon, one of unrequited love due to the cruel sense of humor of the universe, always cursed to kill the same things he longs to be with. It is interesting that this demon of lore that was inspired by a ruthless killer (Vlad the Impaler) has slowly become a symbol of endless love and personal despair. Maybe Dracula says more about our human condition than any of us are really prepared to admit. 

October 29th, 2015