Nosferatu’s Centennial

One of my blog readers who lives in the shadows and doesn’t leave comments in posts recently pointed out that this year is the centennial of F.W. Murnau’s film Nosferatu. This is the earliest cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Notably it was not a sanctioned adaptation and Florence Stoker sued Murnau. All prints of the film were ordered destroyed. What we have of the film today are prints assembled from bits and pieces that survived in personal collections.

Nosferatu

I first became aware of Nosferatu around 1983 when I watched Werner Herzog’s remake of the film starring Klaus Kinski. I was captivated from the opening credits of that film, which showed rows of mummified bodies. The implication is that you’re seeing Dracula’s victims over the years. Even though Dracula drinks blood in the film, the real horror comes because he brings the plague with him, which kills far more people than he does alone. One of the things I really loved in Herzog’s adaptation is the dark, creepy ending.

I loved Herzog’s remake so much, I wanted a copy on home video almost from the moment I could afford my own home video player. I married in 1990 and my wife had not seen the film, and I wanted to show it to her. I looked, but soon discovered that Herzog’s remake had not been released in the United States. So, we decided to rent the original. By the 1990s, many prints of the 1922 Nosferatu were available. It wasn’t officially in the public domain, but it was treated as a public domain property. These were often poor quality prints with a public domain music track of some form in the background. Versions like this are still widely available both on video and on websites like YouTube. Despite the poor transfer, Murnau’s cinematography was still compelling. I loved his used of light and shadow. I enjoyed the special effects such as Count Orlock rising from his crypt or the tarp on the ghost ship sliding back and the hatch lifting on its own.

When I watched the original, I had been surprised that Murnau changed the character names. Dracula became Orlock, Mina Harker became Ellen Hutter, Renfield became Knock, and so forth. I’ve heard it suggested this was done to disguise that Nosferatu was an adaptation of Dracula, but it doesn’t seem to make sense, since all versions of the 1922 Nosferatu I’ve seen have an early title card indicating it’s based on Dracula. I’ve also seen it suggested that Murnau simply made the names more Germanic to match the German setting of his film, which seems more likely. Of note, Herzog’s 1979 remake doesn’t change the names from the novel.

Since that early print, I have found DVD prints where a serious effort is made to restore the 1922 original to the best possible quality. I have the version from Germany’s Kino Lorber, which restores the tints to the original film and made a serious effort at restoring the film. It is lovely to look at and, for the most part, the cinematography still holds up today. There are points where the acting is very broad, as was the case in many early, silent films, but there are also really effective moments. I find it striking in most scenes with Count Orlock, the other actors look genuinely afraid or worried. So, if you’re going to celebrate the centennial of this classic film, I do recommend finding the best possible copy you can.

Both the 1922 original and the 1979 remake influenced the look of the vampire super soldiers who appear in Vampires of the Scarlet Order and will also appear in the sequel that I’m currently plotting. You can explore the novel at: http://davidleesummers.com/VSO.html

7 comments on “Nosferatu’s Centennial

  1. Jack "Blimprider" Tyler says:

    Good morning, my friend, and I hope it finds you well. I found this interesting in a couple of ways. I’ve seen bits and snippets of Nosferatu, and always found it a bit choppy and disjointed. This goes far toward explaining why. But what caught my eye was your mention of light and shadow, and that’s what I want to share for those who, like myself, never got how that worked. I used to look at black and white as old technology that people used before color film was widely available, or when they couldn’t afford it. Boy, was I wrong!

    I watched a video a while back in which Lee Marvin talked about making The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, which was shot in black and white. That always pissed me off, as all I could really see was how much better it would have been in color… until Lee explained it.

    Paraphrasing here, he said such things as, “Those old masters used contrast in a way that someone who only shoots in color can’t imagine. Look at the scene in the Cantina where I trip Jimmy Stewart who falls, dropping John Wayne’s steak on the floor. We both stand up and it almost comes to a shootout right there. It’s a very dramatic scene, but if you look at it technically, there is a brightly-lit pillar in the middle of the frame. My minions and I are on the left side, and it’s dark, signifying that we’re the forces of darkness. The right side where Stewart and Wayne are is slightly brighter. Not dramatically so, but your eye picks it up. They almost glow with an aura that says ‘These are the good guys.’ There’s a scene where a shadow moves against a wall. In color, you’d barely notice the shadow, but in black in white, the menace is palpable. The last scene where I’m toying with Stewart as I prepare to kill him, I’m glowering down on him from the portico, backlit from the saloon. I’m Satan, an irresistible force of nature. Stewart’s in the street, a helpless target with nowhere to hide. The light’s in his face, highlighting his vulnerability. Color would have diluted that scene to less than ordinary. Black and white is what made it what it was.”

    Black and white made a lot of scenes, and I’m grateful to Lee for opening my eyes to the nuanced use of this allegedly bypassed technology. And yes, this has very little to do with Nosferatu or Dracula, but you mentioned light and shadow, and I hope this helps someone else see what Marvin saw. It’s enhanced my viewing considerably.

    Great history on a classic that was nearly lost completely. Thank you for sharing!

    • As someone who’s done photography for news services, websites, yearbooks, etc., i agree on the significant difference between black and white or color. *Casablanca*, the great 1942 film, just doesn’t work nearly as well in color. I don’t see that as because black and white is better, but simply because they’re different.

      There’s a flip side to the contrast issue, one that actually threatened my life. I was taking photos of a forest fire with black and white film. The problem is that, in black and white, fire is almost invisible in a bright area. In order for fire to be clearly seen in a b&w photo, you need a dark background.

      Ordinarily I would stand where the fire had already burned for my safety. But I didn’t see any place the fire had burned that I could stand and get the contrast I needed. So I stood where the fire had not burned.

      I took some pictures, then checked the fire. It had quickly moved to my left. It had quickly moved to my right. It was circling me. Fortunately, there was enough of a break in the flames behind me that I could jump through without getting burned (other than some of my hair getting singed.)

      I never told either the firefighters or my editors what I had done. But my pictures got published!

      • Jack "Blimprider" Tyler says:

        Probably a wise choice, Alden — not telling anyone what you’d done, I mean. I can’t speak to your other choices, not having been there, but there’s an old saying that goes, “Every job is a self-portrait of the person who did it.” No doubt your pictures were published, and I’ll bet they were great. You tend to get out of a thing what you put into it. And I’m very glad you weren’t hurt! What a great story you have to tell. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for dropping by, Jack, and I really appreciate you sharing the story from Lee Marvin about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In Nosferatu, there is a particularly effective scene at the end where Ellen is sitting on the bed with an expression somewhere between ecstasy and pain. The vampire’s shadow is over her. The vampire’s fist-shadow forms a fist over her heart and she dies. Now, you could have shown the vampire simply drinking her blood until her chest stopped rising and falling. Today, there would probably be lots of bloody/gory special effects to make it clear she’d died. But that shot lets us see her emotions clearly and it’s beautifully composed. It’s not clear to me that you could carry that moment off in color film, and it’s certainly true that Herzog didn’t try in the 1979 remake. In that movie, he uses a very limited color palate and still explores light and shadow, but the existence of color does cause him to do some things differently.

    • Thanks for the interesting insight into black and white photography and fire, Alden. I hadn’t thought about that, but it makes sense given my own experience working with black and white images. Glad to hear you were able to get the photo and weren’t injured.

  2. I have mixed feelings about the copyright issue.

    One, I believe in the rights of the creator (or the people they sell it to) to their work. Writers, film makers, etc. need money for food, clothing, shelter, medical expenses, transportation, etc., same as other people. Stealing someone’s work (including making a different version without permission) is stealing.

    On the other hand, once the film was made, even if without permission, that’s a creative work. I strongly dislike seeing creative work destroyed. (An exception would be if the creative work was created to be destroyed, i.e., “We want you to create a model of a castle so we can destroy it in the movie.”)

    As for the acting in early films often being broad, that’s for the same reason the makeup, even for regular people, is often quite exaggerated. The actors and makeup artists in those early films generally got their training in theatre. There’s a huge difference between acting and designing makeup for an audience that, at the closest, will be several yards away, and doing so for an audience that’s going to see the actors from a perspective that’s so close up it’s “bigger than life.”

    • One thing that’s worth noting is that our modern concept of “intellectual property” is relatively recent and even in 1922, I think creators and legal experts were still grappling with how far things like intellectual property rights extended. At some level, we’re still doing that today. I don’t think Murnau was consciously stealing from Bram Stoker or his estate, but thought he was retelling the story in his own way — much like Hans Christian Andersen retold classic fairy tales. Should he have known he was too close to recent source material? I’m not enough of an expert to answer. Should Florence Stoker have stood up for her rights, absolutely. I think her actions helped to set precedent we use today. Did the authorities at the time go too far by ordering every print of the film destroyed? I agree, that seems excessive. Today, there would probably be a more nuanced legal arrangement made.

      As an aside, Stoker originally included a prologue that suggested Dracula was a true story. Clearly this was a literary device to titillate readers and was even pretty common in the Victorian era. However, Stoker’s publishers made him remove that preface. In light of this conversation, I wonder if they were looking ahead to possible challenges. If Stoker based his work on “older stories” or “a true story” does that then make it more fair game for others to do their version of that same “true story”? I’m not sure if this really was a factor in their thinking or not, but I do wonder now.

      You’re absolutely right about stage acting vs film acting and how Nosferatu was filmed when this was still early days and people were still learning what worked and what didn’t. Also, being early days, with film being new, I don’t think they yet had the concept of shoot a scene, look at it to see how well it works, make changes and reshoot. And, even if they did, those audiences were used to the more broad acting, so they likely wouldn’t have seen it the same way we do now.

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