Reviewing a silent film is … tricky. What the forefathers of cinema achieved, experimenting with an infant art form and essentially creating the rules for a whole new means of storytelling, cannot be underestimated. However, a century of change in filmic technology, storytelling techniques and, as a result of those, the subconscious way an audience expects to receive a narrative, has not been kind to silent cinema. Silent films were spellbinding simply for existing; a new and astonishing novelty. However, what would mean little to a person captivated by a moving picture, can essentially break a movie watched through modern eyes. The pantomimic acting, flat angles, endless, often repetitive orchestration, overextended shots, jagged edits, these can constantly break modern audiences” sense of immersion, halt storytelling momentum and prevent our investment.
Sure, images endure and brief moments of spectacle survive – watching Buster Keaton”s stuntwork, for example, is still astonishing – but taken whole as stories, experiences of narrative engagement, silent films have aged awfully. Take Nosferatu for example.
Released in 1922 as Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (or eine Symphonie des Grauens in its original German), it”s heralded as one of the masterpieces of the genre. Having never seen it before, I was shocked by how much of it I recognised; a sequence here, and image there, all of which I”d encountered before via reference, parody or homage over years of pop-culture. It”s influence, not only in crafting a certain vampire aesthetic for decades to come – no Nosferatu, no Buffy – but also in creating enduring symbols of horror – the vampire rising from its coffin, the shadow on the wall as a creature climbs the stairs, bulging white eyes, clawed fingers – is indisputable, but is it scary? No. Not even a little bit. For a masterpiece of horror to be not only not frightening but also plodding and even laugh-out-loud ridiculous in places, is problematic.
In terms of plot, it”s a ripoff of Dracula. I don”t mean that flippantly. The studio who made it, Prana-Film, told screenwriter Henrik Galeen to write a film based on the plot of Bram Stoker”s novel and change the names because they hadn”t managed to secure the rights. The Harkers became the Hutters and Count Dracula became Count Orlok. So similar were the tales, Stoker”s estate successfully sued Prana, bankrupting them and forcing all copies of the film be destroyed. In true horror tradition, one survived.
Some have argued that the word Nosferatu is derived fromthe greek “Nosophorus”, meaning “bringer of plague” and much is made of the count”s likeness to a rat – protruding frontal fangs, long clawlike fingers, pointed nose, pointed ears, he”s a grotesque creation. Much of the film is strikingly gothic, gnarled creatures prowling the shadows of germanic castles, paper-white damsels fainting in the moonlight. The odd stark shot of Count Orlok, or footage of rats scurrying from a coffin, can be profoundly disturbing and in conjunction with the orchestral score – beautifully restored from Hans Erdnmann”s original – the film occasionally conjures a palpable atmosphere of dread, but the problem is that it”s never maintained.
Max Schreck”s Count Orlok is striking when cast in shadow, but sat eating dinner, shot at a flat angle or strutting like a creature from Michael Jackon”s Thriller, shoulders hunched high and rigid, mad eyes gleaming, he comes across as impossibly camp. Erratic pacing often halts momentum, the acting starts at musical hall, figures “why stop there?” before degrading quickly to bug-eyed, scene-chewing cackling, and a number of stop-motion camera effects, no doubt groundbreaking at the time, appear so jagged and clumsy that they immediately jolt you out of the film.
It”s impossible to be objective here, to divorce myself from my circumstances and watch the film as it was originally intended. I have been explicitly told by every corner of the movie-watching community, that this is a classic film, but it”s also ninety-one years old and watching it with modern eyes (what other choice do I have?) I found it hard to sit through.
Often cited as The First Vampire Movie, Nosferatu”s importance is clear and its legacy undeniable. Like any relic, its fascinating to examine and shows us just how far we”ve come, even if its age has rendered it more than a little broken.
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