In the post-war days (world war one, that is), German cinema was all the rage. Today, the land of apfelstrudel and bratwurst can hardly claim to be the cultural pinnacle of the western world, no matter how low the fuel consumption of their cars may be. But then? Back in the day, the crafty Germans managed to produce classics such as Metropolis, Die Nibelungen, Dr. Mabuse, Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari, and M: a psychological horror thriller about a child molester - from the molester's point of view.
Today, we'll look at one of the most acknowledged of Germany's creepy crawlers: Nosferatu from 1922. Now, I know a lot of you look like you're chewing a mouthful of sour currants from a cancer-suffering bush right now, but keep in mind that black and white can't really hurt you. And yes, bushes can develop cancer.
Some background is necessary before we kick off. When word came out F.W. Murnau was shooting the film Dracula, Bram Stoker's widow demanded the project to be terminated. Murnau had completely neglected the fact that a licence was necessary, and found himself facing red tape of biblical proportions. He hoped renaming the film and the characters would get him out of the jam, but once Nosferatu hit the silver screens, the widow announced that all copys were to be burned. Today, she might come across as a complete bitch, but one has to remember that Murnau by no means should be making this film. Anyway, celluloid pieces and reels were later discovered all over the world, and the restoration of the masterpiece was soon finished. Hooray! I should also mention that the expressionistic style utilized in this film owes a lot to the classic Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari, and that the word 'nosferatu' is Slavic for 'bringer of plagues'. You know, in a couple of years, I might have majored in motion picture history, and you will hav to address me as 'Dr. Sandvik', so enjoy the informal days while you can.
Enter Gustav von Wangenheim, the worst actor of all time. I know the actors of those days were really theater actors and that exaggerated motion was necessary to convey emotion in this grainy soundless environment, but he's still the worst actor I've ever seen. He's the kind of guy that you don't want on your cherades team: he tries to mime the word 'ball', and you guess 'Jupiter'.
Wangenheim plays Hutter, the Harker character. Every single person I've discussed the Coppola version of this story with comments on Keanu Reeves's stiff acting. This version doesn't exactly help; When you're used to seeing the travelling real estate agent read a book like the Native Americans would react to a GameBoy Advance had Colombus brought one along, Reeves resembles a mighty redwood in comparison.
After spending the morning picking flowers with gesticulation that suggests the roots tangle themselves all the way to the earth's core, Hutter presents the fruit of his hard work to his fiancÚ Ellen. Her response is somewhat different than Hutter expected - she wonders why he had to kill the poor little flowers. Hutter shows his disappointment by putting on his 'everyone I love is dead' look. Like in most other versions of this tale, this is not the kind of guy Ellen/Mina needs at all. Her type is the pale mysterious kind. Too bad Gary Oldman wasn't born when this film was shot. This vamp does not walk the streets of London wearing top hats and stylish blue sunglasses, but rather oozes along the backstreets of Bremen. And sometimes, he even looks like Klinger from M*A*S*H. More about him later though.
Minor rewrite: Hutter's employer is the Vampire's right hand. In Stoker's book, this function was performed by Renfield, who most of you might remember as Tom Waits. Had Hutter seen the look on his employer's face seconds before he punched in, he wouldn't feel bad about all the 'evil boss' jokes he told at last year's Christmas party. This guy is bad news.
Hutter's boss has an assignment for him. He is to travel to Romania to seal a deal. Apparently, one count Orlok wants to buy some houses in Bremen now that the plague has put the property values to an all-time low. Of course, the real reason is somewhat different from the one I just made up: he wants to make Ellen his undead wife and live with her in darkness until the end of days.
Hutter suspects no such agendas though, and sleeps sound in his Roumanian tavern. Howling wolves, terrified peasants and the encyclopedia on vampirology placed beside his bead don't worry him. This is the age of reason, and to express just how little confidence he has in superstitious books, he smiles and puts it back on his desk, almsot breaking it in the process. You know, I seriously doubt this guy ever performed on any stage. It's more likely he used to be one of those guys who signal fighter planes in on aircraft carriers.
After making fun of the stupid supersticous farmers, Hutter pays a couple of them to ride him the count's castle. Once the sun approaches the horizon, they tell him they will go no further. Hutter laughs so hard his head almost breaks in two, and continues on foot. Soon a wagon appears and takes him onboard.
Shown above are two stills from one of the greatest visual effects of all time. To make things a bit spookier, Mornau filmed a sequence where both the cloth on the horses and the drapings on the carriage were white, and reversed the images. It may not look much today, but in 1922, this was just as impressive and terrifying as Jar Jar Binks was in 99.
Once Hutter arrives, Graf Orlok greets him. Orlok is played by Max Schreck, who was lucky enough to get a part named after him in Batman Returns, played by none other than Christopher Walken. Sometimes you have to feel sorry for Chris. When he's not asked to be outsmarted by CGI mice in Disney comedies or star against Eric Roberts, he gets the part that's named after the ugliest little creature in the history of cinema. On the other hand, he got to bite Miranda Richardson in the gob while riding a horse straight through a portal to hell. Christopher Walken is God, and you know it.
Coming up is the scene where Gary Oldman's shadow went crazy and spilled wax all over Winona Ryder's picture in a later visualization of this story. No extravagant shadow play here, but li'l Drac compensates later on.
Hutter is of course hungry after the long journey, being hyperactive and all. Fortunately, Orlok found some food to stuff him with. While Hutter digs in, The count takes a look at the real estate papers. In those days, it was common that legally binding documents had skulls and scary symbols on them. You know how 19th century German lawyers are.
Inbetween browsing contracts, Orlok catches a glimpse of Ellen's photo, and compliments on her neck. Hutter is more of a tit person himself, but sees the count's point. Then, while reading on, Orlok falls out for a moment and stares blankly into the air. That happes with me sometimes too, but when this guy does it, he look pretty menacing. So menacing, in fact, that Hutter cuts his own thumb while slicing his bread.
The good count won't let a chance like this pass by, and throws himself upon the bleeding thumb, sucking on it like it was a fudge-filled caramel. Hutter is shocked, backing towards a chair by the fireplace. Here he sits down, and is overpowered by the vampire. Some analyst read homoerotisism into this, and he might be right. Also, he could be a flaming Freudian. If he's right, it means that Orlok is the predecessor of Frankenfurter from Rocky Horror, only Tim Curry had sex with that Boswick guy from Spin City and Susan Sarandon instead of uptight Eastern Europeans. A wise choice.
The next day, Hutter writes in his letter to Ellen that two mosquitos have bitten him on the neck during the night. Denial, denial. Happy as always, he spends the day frolicking in the count's garden. But when the sun sets and he goes to bed, he gets this creepy feeling. He opens the door to his bedroom and...
Scariest moment in any motion picture ever! That is, most people I've shown this to wonder what the hell I'm talking about. "He's just standing there." That's the creepy part! Plus, there's something weird about his joints. Seriously, this is one of the most disturbing things I can think of. Not one movement. And imagine how long he's been standing there waiting. Bhuuuur! Gives me the heebies just thinking about it.
Hutter slams his door shut, hoping it will all go away. Just a dream. Happy place. Mosquitos. Of course, he's not fooling anybody: he now knows he's a prisoner and that Orlok is his new master. The vampire's bitch is what he is.
And here the film really starts. When I begun writing this review, I wasn't really sure at which point I'd end it. After all, this is a great film, and I was planning to stick to my policy about not spoiling endings of movies I really like. I will after all recommend that you see it for yourself. On the other hand, everybody knows this story. You've seen it countless times with Bela Lugosi, Frank Langella, Christopher Lee, George Hamilton and Leslie Nielsen as the bloodsucking prince of the night. Actually, I think Nielsen is the bloodsucking prince of the night in every single movie he's been in, especially Mr. Magoo and Spy Hard. You know what, I think I'll pick out a couple of highlights. I did promise some juicy shadow shots, and by God I'll give you shadow shots.
THE COFFIN SCENE
This is where it all began. Had Murnau not conceived the idea to tie Max up to a board and hoist him up, today's vampires would probably climb out of their coffins just like everyone else. And I don't know about you, but I for one am unable to do that in a graceful way. Since this is a piece of motion picture history, I'll let you see for yourself.
THE SHADOW SCENE
This one is pretty famous: Orlok runs around in Bremen in shadow form. When I think back, I remember that my teacher in film class gave me a compilation tape with some of the greatest moments in cinema history, and I'm pretty sure this one was there, right before the scene in Body Snatchers where Kevin McKarthy freaks out. There are of course other scenes woth mentioning, but I think I'll just leave it there. If you're interested in old European cinema, you should check it out yourself.
This movies isn't as obscure as a lot of you might think. I'm pretty sure many of you guys have seen it already. So, to enlighten you besserwissers, I have included some:
He may not look a lot like Max Schreck, but he's murder on the dancefloor whenever he gets the chance to do his Thriller routine. When I had just bought this action figure, I discovered some other company had produced one as well, and they did it right. He had the hat and the robe and everything. Still, I just couldn't make myself buy it. You may think this has to do with being fanboyish enough to buy two action figures portraying the same 20s film character, but truth be told, I just wouldn't know who would win - The badass one that looks like a rheumatic devil hobo, or the one who's wearing his bath robe and slippers but looks like the real thing. Putting them up against each other would be like playing chess with yourself. Gah, I just realized I forgot to give Orlok a European accent in the Splinter image above. Ah, screw it.
You can also buy miscellaneous items with the motif on the right: T-shirts, coffee mugs and lighters are available through certain sites and magazines. I'm not really sure if they're the official Nosferatu T-shirts, but I suspect Murnau threw his rights out the window once he strarted filming a bootleg vampire flick. And he's dead as well, come to think of it. And I doubt Prana Film still is in business today. I guess you could put up a stand and sell white shirts with 'Nosferatu' scribbled on the back and draw a black bat over the 'Goldmann's Electronics' logo and it would be just as official as the film itself.
Now go see the film.