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Sunday, 8 May 2011

Silent Film Marathon: Film 5

Nosferatu, one of the most widely known of all Silent films and one of the most instantly recognisable Horror films of all time. Loosely based on the amazing "Dracula" by Bram Stoker, and remade by Werner Herzog and yet I had not seen it until now.

This is the first Murnau film I have seen, and as he is considered one of the finest directors of his time I will be seeing three more over the course of this marathon.

As I said previously, this is one of the most widely known Silent films, probably because the tale of Dracula is one that has fascinated the public ever since Bram Stoker wrote his original book in 1897.
It is a story that has been reprised countless times in various art forms and Dracula himself has become one of the most instantly recognisable figures in popular culture.
Furthermore, this film has itself been remade very faithfully by Werner Herzog and while it is not one of my favourite Herzog films I must now give it praise for the accuracy of the adaptation, it is almost a shot for shot remake.

Strangely enough, I couldn't help but feel disappointed by this film. Maybe it was because of my familiarity with the story, there was little room for surprise, or maybe because I hold the book in very high regard and this is a rather poor adaptation.
But comparing it to the book would be pointless as it is not even an authorised adaptation, hence the name changes (Count Orlok replaces Count Dracula) and the title.
The basic storyline however is very similar, a young man leaves for Transylvania to visit a mysterious Count for a business transaction, the Count turns out to be a horrible vampire and after imprisoning the young man, he returns to the man's native town, along with a horde of rats, to wreak havoc and prey on his fiancée.

Now I realise that by saying I was disappointed I have made a rather bold claim as this is often considered one of the finest films ever made, but I decided to be honest.
The film does contain many very impressive and admirable aspects that I greatly enjoyed, so I will start by mentioning those.

I thought Max Schreck as the Count was quite extraordinary, he is a powerful on screen presence as well as being "strikingly ugly" (Murnau's own words) but at the same time very graceful with his tall thin frame. The fact that he moves very slowly but decisively and rarely blinks only adds to the uneasy presence he creates in his scenes.
I feel I must mention that although I am unfamiliar with Vampire films (especially the Hammer films with Christopher Lee) I have seen one Vampire performance that can rival Schreck's and that would be Klaus Kinski's in the remake of this very film, I say rival but he might actually surpass Schreck in creepiness and quite intensity. Truly fascinating to watch in ever second he is in, which makes him one of my absolute favourite actors.

The décor was also remarkable in this film, much of it was shot outside and one doesn't get the sense of falseness that can arise from similar films from the era, it is filled with movement, on land and across the seas.
The Carpathian mountains were put to good use, creating suitably intimidating and dark atmosphere that was reminiscent of the book. And the Count's castle perched atop a cliff was quite stunning (see pic).
The interiors wee particularly well done, many of them shot on location the the castle it seemed to me and I appreciated the lack of a staged feel that the film could of had, but didn't.

The previous film I reviewed was The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, one of the first Horror films and one of the earliest examples of German Expressionist Cinema. Nosferatu takes many elements of this movement and improves on them, creating a film that instead of relying on a large cast and impressive sets as did earlier Epics, relies of atmosphere brought about by the intense performances of a small cast, striking individual images, evocative sets and a very focused narrative.
The mix of Gothic Horror and German Expressionism is fascinating in this film, many of the images play out as one would imagine them whilst reading the book. 
Shadows are used to great effect, and play a large part in the setting the sinister tone of the film. (See image to the left).
So the shadows combined with the locations, horrific performance by Schreck and generally scary subject, make an effective Horror film that relies on atmosphere rather than sudden scares or gore to disturb the audience.
But as with all films, including many today, it would be hard (although not impossible) to create such an atmosphere without the soundtrack, and the music is suitably dramatic, at times scary. The music is always very important in Silent films but I think that in this instance it plays a larger role than usual as it creates the basic atmosphere which essential for a film of this kind.

Now I obviously have a lot of respect for this film and can even say I liked it, but as I said before I was disappointed and now I will explain why. 
The whole of the films narrative was split into Five Acts, but the first four were build-up and the final act was the climax. The problem was that the film's length and the amount of build up made the entire film seem rushed, especially towards the end. I just wish more time had been taken over the story, more chance to admire the terrific imagery, but it all went by so fast.
The narrative itself was also rather superficial in my opinion, it really could have done with a touch more depth, maybe presenting the Count's reason's for returning to Hutter's home town, his fascination with the man's wife, these things are explained so well in the book that I just couldn't help but feel disappointed by the way it was all skated over. It touched upon a few of the themes present in the book, while still leaving out some of the most fascinating, yet failed to develop them into something more interestign in my opinion.
In this respect, Herzog's remake is actually superior.

I also found some of the sub plots and individual sequences to be unnecessary which could have been replaced with some of the aspects I mentioned above. In particular the whole sub plot involving the young man's boss who becomes insane and is later revealed to be a servant of Orlok, this actually could have been done away with entirely as it was just a confusing mash up of various elements present in the book, but I can also see the purpose, as we are able to see how the Count ensnared the young man, but in any case, to much time was spent on something that was ultimately of little consequence.

Well, that pretty much sums up my various ramblings on this film. It is a fine example of Gothic Horror put to screen and Murnau is undeniably talented, I look forward to seeing more of his work, furthermore, the pristine condition of the copy I watched was a real pleasure to watch.

Recommended, but I would recommend the book much more highly, and Herzog's remake which improves on thsi film in some respects.

Next up is Haxan, an odd looking film that I have very high expectations for!

As always comments are appreciated and will be answered when I have time!

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