Friday, November 22, 2019

Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922)

Classic F.W. Murnau Silent Era German Expressionist Film


5 Stars; MPAA Rating: Unrated
Director: F.W. Murnau 

The Grandfather of Horror Films

A mid-silent era masterpiece by F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu almost became a "lost" film. Its production company, Prana, was sued by Bram Stoker's estate. The court ordered all its negatives and prints destroyed and Prana declared bankruptcy to get out from under the damage award. Nosferatu was the only film Prana produced. Seems a copy or two got buried in collections or archives, to be exhumed decades later bringing it back to life, ironically fitting for a vampire movie. A number of characteristics of vampires, as depicted in the movies (but not necessarily in the book), were established in Nosferatu, most notably the deadly allergy to direct sunlight.

The grandfather of horror films, Nosferatu terrified its audiences. Banned in Sweden 1922-1972 for being too horrifying. The latter date is more related to its exhumation, resurrection and re-release than any great enlightenment taking fifty years. The movie serves today as a superb study in the use of cinematography framing and lighting with use of light and shadow, as well as post-production tinting and some other techniques, to help tell the story and express emotion in the silent era. The modest over-acting is what one normally expects in the silent era, but it's not as high an over the top melodrama as seen in other silents. This was not a high budget film and the special effects are nearly non-existent beyond makeup and Nosferatu's prosthetics. However, there was considerable thought put into every aspect that was filmed for the mood it created, particularly with use of light and shadow, and its contribution to the story telling. Murnau used the equivalent of story boards and the script contains considerable notes regarding locations used and production design, on location and at the Berlin Prana studios sets. Pacing is good and consistent for the silent era and intertitles. The story has a very logical sequence and doesn't bog down anywhere. Likewise, the character development is decent for the principals; while there is some for the major supporting roles, it's noticeably less, likely for efficiency and maintaining the pacing.

Finally, the movie must be put into the context of Berlin in its early interbellum years. The war ended in 1918 with Germany's monarchy collapsing creating a political vacuum. German lands held since the 1870's and earlier were ceded by the 1919 Versailles Treaty to other countries, along with submitting to massive war reparation payments. Germany was in continuous political turmoil within the Weimar Republic, including rampant economic inflation induced by the crippling war reparations and restrictions on its heavy industry. Within a country trying to find a new identity and recover from a war, Berlin became a freewheeling "anything goes" social hotbed. It was in that environment the German film industry rose in prominence and the German Expressionist films were created. German Expressionist cinema production emigrated to the UK and US during the early 1930's with the rise of the Nazi party, its rabid antisemitism, and rigid absolute state control of all cinema production. The result was heavy influence on US and UK horror films, film noir, suspense and other crime films through the 1940's. Nosferatu is one of several silent era films that show the basis and origin of this influence. In particular, compare Nosferatu with Universal's 1931 Dracula.

Nosferatu may have lost its ability to terrify contemporary audiences, but it hasn't lost its ability to entertain them and illuminate the basis from which the horror genre's basic principles originated and grew. Count Orlok is as repulsive an evil villain today as he was over 90 years ago.

The USA Kino Blu-ray release contains two discs, one with English intertitles and the other with German intertitles and English sub-titles. Blu-ray transfer is quite good given the condition of the source material, and includes some restoration work including missing intertitles. The sharpness and detail (within the limitations of the film source) is undoubtedly an improvement over the DVD. Recording of the original musical score is excellent. There are some extras that give a very good background about F.W. Murnau, Prana studios, the film's production, and Murnau's associates.

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Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922)

Classic F.W. Murnau Silent Era German Expressionist Film ★★★★★ 5 Stars; MPAA Rating: Unrated Director: F.W. Murnau   The Grandfather ...