Film

The Timeless Horror of Nosferatu's Slinking Shadow Climbing Across a Wall

Kino-Lorber's release of Nosferatu features some of the best special features of any DVD this year.


Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

Director: F.W. Murnau
Cast: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim,Greta Schröder
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Release date: 2013-11-12

Few characters in cinema have proved as indomitably influential as Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Even those who think they haven’t seen Murnau’s iconic horror ur-text actually have only secondarily. They have experienced it in homages and parodies, seen its influence on every successive horror film that has made use of the pioneering techniques of German Expressionism, been terrified by the image of a slinking shadow climbing across a wall.

Viewers know him better as Nosferatu, the ghoulish Dracula figure with long fingernails and ghost-white skin that subsists on human blood. The legacy of Murnau’s film is such that it has become permanently synonymous with horror, ineluctable from a wider dialogue on genre, and, like great art has the tendency to be, fascinating to rediscover.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror was released in 1922, nearly a century ago. For the mathematically uninclined, that’s 100 long years. Obviously it is, but it’s illustrative to think about on its own, even more so when the film’s impact is given historical perspective. Cinema at the time was in its infancy, a dialogue-free medium that relied upon, and at its best thrived upon, the lingering impact of the image. This limitation helped catalyze movements in formalism such as German Expressionism that exaggerated shapes and figures for effect, seen here in each of Orlok’s prolonged shadows.

Murnau’s film is itself an adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula, though legal issues at the time precluded the conference of title and character names. Thus, we have Count Orlok rather than Count Dracula, Noferatu rather than vampire. In fact, nearly all the prints of Nosferatu were destroyed several years after the film’s premiere, thanks to a lawsuit by Stoker’s widow.

Thankfully, some early film preservationists tucked away a few prints and protected the legacy of one of cinema’s first true masterpieces. This legal hullaballoo didn’t negate the film’s impact; though Nosferatu was marginally unsuccessful upon initial release, its reputation has grown exponentially throughout time. German visionary Werner Herzog recreated the film nearly shot-for-shot in 1979, and, more recently, Shadow of the Vampire re-enacted the famed pairing of director and star through a fictionalized “making of” starring John Malkovich and Willem Defoe, respectively. These are just a few of many illuminating anecdotes revealed in Kino Lorber’s astounding refurbishment of the film.

Speaking of the film, the story it tells is now practically common knowledge. A small-town German man, Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is urged by his boss to travel to Transylvania to sell one of the town’s properties. Through the Carpathian Mountains he goes, along the way greeted with reproached stares and bewilderment when he mentions to strangers that he is traveling to see Count Orlok.

He eventually arrives at Orlok’s lugubrious estate after an appropriately portentous voyage, welcomed by a cloaked figure eager for the company of a wary traveler and potential meal. Hutter first senses trouble when Orlok rushes to his hand after a small cut draws blood. He hopes to fly under-the-radar that night by hiding out in his room, but Orlok, clearly with other plans, visits unannounced, feasting upon his guest.

It seems that by visiting Orlok, Hutter unleashes some sort of newfound zest in the vampire, who places himself among a cascade of coffins in a vessel headed for Hutter’s hometown. This chain of events occurs while Hutter recovers from a bloodsucking-induced loss of consciousness, who is now panicked for his wife’s safety and trailing far behind.

With some rats in tow, and a clear agenda at world domination, Orlok arrives at Hutter’s village just in time to find his wife alone and ready for the taking. Or is she?

Accompanied by a macabre, grand score, Murnau’s Nosferatu haunts well into these times. Each composition is meticulously crafted to incite dread, and they do. In Count Orlok, Murnau has created a modern mythology that would be relayed for generations. Even today, Schreck’s embodied performance of an unmoored villain inspires copious pastiche, with the sunken eyes, dangling, overlong fingernails, and protruding incisors amounting to the template for villainous portrayals and Halloween costumes the world over.

Lorber’s comprehensive overhaul left no stone unturned. The print is vibrant and pristinely restored, as is the accompanying soundtrack. The release also features some of the best special features of any disk this year. Not only is there an expansive hour-long documentary on Murnau and the making of the film, but there is a rare collection of Murnau’s short films and excerpts from all his others as well. He would go on to make Tabu, Greed, and Faust, all well-regarded, canonical titles in their own right. But you need look no further than his Nosferatu to see how Murnau influenced countless films, filmmakers, and storytellers.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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