Sunday, October 18, 2015

Nosferatu: BFI Film Classics (2013)

by Kevin Jackson

I once wrote about a book called Blue Note Records: A Biography, by Richard Cook, that it broke no new ground, had no new interviews, and unearthed no new facts about the label. Any assiduous reader of Blue Note liner notes would have known nearly all of the information presented in Cook’s book. And yet I also argued that the book was necessary. What Cook had done was to synthesize all of the existing information about the label, its history, and it’s most prestigious records and artists into a cohesive narrative, something that had never been done before. The same can be said about most of the books on classic films in the British Film Institute’s series. If one thinks of them as a very thorough DVD booklet, they’ll get the idea. The series doesn’t usually contain information that isn’t available elsewhere, but it’s nice to have it all in one convenient place. Kevin Jackson’s volume on W.F. Munau’s silent classic, Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens, is a case in point. After a brief introduction about the critical and historical success of the film in the wake of works by Siegfried Kracauer and Lotte Eisner, he begins by placing the film in the historical context of the Weimar years and the still looming shadow of World War One.

One of the topics that comes up in the pre-history of Murnau's Nosferatu that is usually never mentioned at all in other works is the influence of German mysticism, still firmly in place during the Nazi years, and recounted wonderfully in the film Invincible by Werner Herzog. All of which explains why the Weimar years were so rife with films of supernatural content. Unlike many directors who worked their way up from cameramen, Murnau was born into a wealthy family and was a scholar in his youth, studying what would today be called comparative literature. But even with this academic bent, he was still a practiced outdoorsman at his father’s insistence. He dropped out of school to join Max Reinhardt’s acting company, and flew as a fighter pilot in the First World War, accidentally flying into Switzerland and spending the remainder of the war putting on productions with the other prisoners. Once the war had ended he created his own production company and made several films prior to being contacted by Albin Grau, an avowed occultist, to direct an unauthorized version of Dracula.

Production began in July of 1921 in and around the Baltic port city of Wismar to shoot the exteriors that would stand in for Bremen of a century earlier. A month later they moved on to Prague and traveled by coach to Dolný Kubín to shoot the Transylvania exteriors in and around Orlock’s castle. Making a couple of stops on the way back for specific shots, they went back to Berlin to finish the film by shooting the interiors. Murnau used the Ufa studio in the Johannisthal district, located in the southeast part of the city and named Jufa. The final element of the production was hiring composer Hans Erdmann to write a score specifically for the film--one of the first of its kind. The middle thirty pages of the book consist of a scene-by-scene analysis of the final film, complete with color tinted stills to emphasize specific examples--though it must be said that the contrast in the prints came out rather dark in the printing. One quote from Murnau that Jackson includes is his injunction to filmmakers to eschew “interesting” camera angles, as they “they only lower the dramatic interest of the story, because they are merely 'interesting' without having any dramatic value.” Samuel Johnson gave the very same warning to writers who they thought had written something great: “and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out,” for the reason that it won’t fit in with the rest of the work.

One of the nice things about Jackson’s analysis is the doing away with defining Murnau’s film as Expressionist. While there are sequences that have some Expressionist influence, the film as a whole is Romantically inspired--like its literary template--and follows a mostly classical style of filmmaking. The analysis uses Murnau’s own annotated copy of the screenplay, which is a welcome addition. Two other myths Jackson mercifully does away with, one of which is the idea that Orlock the vampire represents the “pestilential Jew” in anti-Semitic readings of the film, which in no way represents Murnau’s personal views. The other is the reading of the film as anti-gay, another incorrect interpretation given the fact that Murnau himself was gay and he certainly didn’t view his presence in society as a plague. While the film received mostly positive reviews in Germany, it was a commercial failure, Grau’s production company went bankrupt, and to add insult to injury, Stoker’s widow successfully sued and all existing copies and negatives were ordered destroyed. Fortunately history won out and multiple copies of the film were hidden away throughout the world. Ultimately Jackson’s book is a satisfying summary of most of the well-known aspects of the film, along with some lesser-known items, making BFI’s Nosferatu a welcome addition to any film library.

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