nosferatu

Courtesy of Film Arts Guild

October 21, 2016

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

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After surviving attempts to destroy all copies of this film due to copyright infringement (they never got the rights to the material), this adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula (1897) was brought before a packed audience in Sage Chapel. For those who don’t know, Nosferatu is a 1922 silent, expressionist, German film. This means lots of beautiful stylized acting may be in store, which is my favorite part of any silent film. Since silent films can only use intertitles for dialogue, the plot has to be conveyed via the characters’ actions. The actors are over the top in their gestures, and their eyes bulge farther than I think should be physically possible. However, the stylized acting here is downplayed to make the audience take the film more seriously. So, unfortunately, it isn’t as funny as I thought it might be. But, what do you expect from one of the most influential horror films of all time? The question I wanted to explore was whether Nosferatu really is as flawless as everyone believes it to be.

In any silent film, the only sound is the accompanying soundtrack. That night, we had the pleasure of live accompaniment from the orchestra, the Silent Czars. And, I don’t know if it was just because I couldn’t see them, but I kept forgetting the music was live. It was dramatic, on point with what was on screen down to characters’ gestures and really created a creepy atmosphere. One of the Silent Czars even added an intro to the piece by dressing up in period costume, trying to scare the audience before the film started. It was creative but confusing.

The film lives up to its name in atmosphere. For a film made in 1922, it builds suspense very well through the ominous shadows (chiaroscuro lighting for you film junkies), long takes and the eerie music. The best scenes are when Count Orlok (a.k.a. Nosferatu) tries to kill his victims by sucking their blood. I just wish there were more scenes like this. Throughout the entire film, you only see Nosferatu attack four times and control people with his shadow once. The other times, we just see the result of his attacks and the dead. So, despite the atmosphere building in intensity and eeriness, there’s not that much of a payoff. You could argue less is more, but scenes when we don’t see Nosferatu ranged from odd to confusing.

The characters are pretty typical to what you would find in this genre today: the unspeakable evil (Nosferatu), the minion (Knock), the fair maiden (Ellen), the dashing hero (Hutter) and others. Nosferatu is creepy, and his costume and makeup design really add to the overall effect. I particularly like the addition of his long nails, which is a pretty defining feature. His limitless telekinetic powers make me wonder why it takes so long for him to kill everyone and attack Ellen. What is he waiting for? Knock, Hutter’s boss and scapegoat for the town’s killings, is controlled by Nosferatu. He is just a crazy character and is so much fun. Even his eyebrows take on a life of their own. I wish he does more than just send Hutter to Nosferatu, but that might make the audience not take the film seriously. I guess I just wanted more over the top.

The actress playing Ellen isn’t fantastic, but I can’t say I’ve seen silent films where the acting is realistic. And, some artistic liberties are definitely taken with the portrayal of characters. There is a very bizarre scene where she somehow telepathically stops Nosferatu from attacking Hutter. Her “powers” don’t come into play anywhere else, so I’m not sure how to interpret that. Also, she is Hutter’s wife, so how is she a fair maiden? I mean, I don’t know the inner workings of their marriage, but I doubt that she’s a maiden. I guess Nosferatu goes after her because he sees her in a picture Hutter has, but it’s weird that she just happens to be the one that could somehow distract Nosferatu and kill him. And, she doesn’t do anything to really distract him more than other people, so it just seems like Nosferatu is stupid for not getting back to his house in time.

Hutter ranges from fun and enjoyable to just dopey. He is a relatable character but doesn’t run when he figures out Nosferatu is a vampire. And, to follow Nosferatu, he jumps out of a tall window instead of using the stairs, which causes him to be taken to a hospital. Hutter never makes the connection, or tells anyone, that the vampire is in their town. So, people die because he doesn’t take action.

The story starts with Knock sending Hutter to Count Orlok in “the land of phantoms” to offer him a house across from Hutter’s. I don’t know if the phantoms are a metaphor or are real because the world seems like ours, which is why Nosferatu adds conflict to our normal world. Hutter even laughs at the idea that a creature like Nosferatu could exist. But, when Hutter goes to a tavern in Transylvania, they tell him to spend the night to take cover from the werewolves, something apparently common in the area. And, I don’t really know how worldly people were in the 1920s, but instead of having someone in a silly costume, there are shots of a hyena since, I guess, it was a bizarre creature to the period’s audience. I speculate that the filmmakers thought it would be taken more seriously, but all I thought was “poor hyena.” I hope it is equity. So, we are led to believe that the supernatural exists, but once people start dying from a bite in the neck, everyone assumes plague first. Then, they quite randomly decide that Knock is a vampire since he kills a guard.

There are a couple of other plot holes that also rear their ugly heads. The townspeople are scared to go to Count Orlok’s castle at first but regularly go there other times. Nosferatu also doesn’t drink all of Hutter’s blood the first chance he has, and, to be honest, he doesn’t really need to sign the deed for the house in Hutter’s town since he goes there without anyone knowing anyway. So, why doesn’t he go there before? And, why does he take a ship to the town if he easily moves himself across land? Hutter gets there just as fast on foot as he does in water (a problem that even the film addresses in that they don’t know how it is possible). As confusing as these flaws are, and as easily swayed the townspeople are, it doesn’t distract from the enjoyment of the picture.

The effects for the time are really good. Despite being a black and white film, this version, still from 1922, includes filters that help determine the time of day: piss yellow for a lit space, blue for night (yet people can still see) and white or pink for early morning. Some of the frames are missing in time, so some scenes are choppy, including the stop motion. However, you can really appreciate what they were able to accomplish almost 100 years ago, especially when the doors and other objects flawlessly move on their own, thus giving a “not of this world” appearance. For example, the footage of the horse and carriage that carry Hutter to Nosferatu’s castle is sped up to give the carriage unnatural speed. The idea is good, but it does look a little silly. It really makes you wonder what effects we use today are going to be dated 100 years from now. It was shot on location, which is a better choice than what some filmmakers do today in only using CGI. Practical effects look real guys, not just fake CGI sets.

My biggest problem, other than Hutter being a bit of an idiot, is the intertitles. There is a lot of reading, even for a silent film, to a point where we had to reread titles we had already read. I know this is a famous film, but I think my screenplay professor would faint at the amount of reading the audience had to do.

In the end, the film still really holds up. It’s just not as flawless as people make it out to be. The slow moving atmosphere makes the intense scenes with Nosferatu all the more effective and enjoyable. And, Nosferatu is a quintessential villain. He is all knowing, telepathic, telekinetic, and is king of the night. I just wish a creature that powerful would be harder to kill and survive beyond the film. But, I did enjoy the development in Ellen’s character in her willingness to sacrifice herself to kill Nosferatu. I just yearned for Hutter to grow a pair and take a stand as well. Anyway, I gotta grab another band-aid. I woke up this morning with two equally spaced holes around my neck. Stupid mosquitoes.

Trip Hastings is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at gh357@cornell.edu. 

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