Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens [Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horrors]
d. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau / 1922 / Germany / 92 mins
Viewed at: St. Luke’s “Bombed-Out” Church (Liverpool, UK)
Catch-up week continues with F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, screened in the open-air of Liverpool’s Bombed-out church, St Lukes, courtesy of multi-arts misfits Urban Strawberry Lunch. It was screened on DVD (the BFI version, if I’m not mistaken), but that didn’t detract from seeing such an excellent film in the near-perfect setting of a long-abandoned church.
This was the first time I had seen a proper, colour-tinted version of Murnau’s Nosferatu and I have to say, it makes a huge difference, both to the mood of the film and to its narrative logic. It’s tempting to forget that when this film was originally produced, studios were still little more than four high walls and no ceiling. Celluloid technology in the early days of cinema was such that almost everything, including interiors, had to be shot in clear, bright daylight, with evening scenes shot day-for-night not as a matter of convenience, but out of necessity.
Such is the curse of most shabbily assembled versions of Murnau’s Nosferatu (and there are many doing the rounds). Without the blue colour-tint denoting night time scenes, Murnau’s vampiric villain is, inexplicably, able to walk around in the light of day. As we all know, vampyrs simply don’t do sunlight, and watching an untinted Nosferatu is a little like watching a 3D movie without glasses. Thankfully, the version we saw was tinted, with restored intertitles and accompanied by the late, great James Bernard’s excellent soundtrack, composed especially for this version in 1996.
The eerie familiarity of Nosferatu’s early scenes, in which our protagonist, Hutter, travels through the menacing Carpathian villages to Count Olaf’s castle, owes itself, I think, to a merging of multiple viewings of Murnau’s version as a film student, and later encounters with Werner Herzog’s near identical remake starring Klaus Kinski in the titular role. A rare feat of acceptable cinematic homage and remakery, Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre updated Murnau’s film for a post-WWII audience, whilst losing none of Murnau’s original menace.
It’s hard to convince people that a silent film, over eighty years old, can be ‘scary’ in any modern, tangible sense, particularly when the only silent cinema many people have ever encounted involves either Charlie Chaplain or Buster Keaton. Yet, Murnau’s Nosferatu endures as a truly terrifying film, without needing recourse to the short-sharp-shock techniques that evolved in the horror films of the 1960s and 70s and continue to this day. It is, as they say, a classic.