THE BOOTLEG FILES: “NOSFERATU”

BOOTLEG FILES 204: “Nosferatu” (F.W. Murnau’s 1922 pioneering vampire feature).

LAST SEEN: Available for viewing at several online sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only in crappy public domain dupes.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: This film was supposed to have been destroyed 85 years ago!

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: As an orphan film without its original materials, it is probably doomed to public domain hell.

I hate to be the sourpuss in the Halloween pumpkin patch, but I never liked “Nosferatu.” I can appreciate its historic importance as the world’s first vampire film, and I acknowledge that director F.W. Murnau created an artistically impressive production. But I could never achieve a genuine emotional connection with “Nosferatu.” I tried again the other week while doing the research for this article – but I fell asleep watching the movie.

The fact that anyone can watch “Nosferatu” is a small miracle, since the film was supposed to have been destroyed by court order. It seems that Murnau and his producers, a German company called Prana-Film GmbH, took Bram Stoker’s copyright-protected novel “Dracula” and made an unauthorized film version in 1922. The filmmakers tried to disguise the obvious by switching the story’s central location from London to Bremen and changing the names of the characters (Dracula became Count Orlok, Renfield became Knock, Jonathan and Mina Harker became Thomas and Ellen Hutter, Van Helsing became Bulwer).

But it didn’t work – Stoker’s widow successfully sued Prana-Film GmbH in a British court. The production company opted to declare bankruptcy rather than pay Mrs. Stoker damages, and it also agreed to the destruction of the negative and all of the “Nosferatu” prints.

However, some prints were already in circulation throughout Europe, and the British court was unable to track them down and destroy them (the surviving prints wound up in France, out of the jurisdiction of the British legal system). The film eventually showed up in the U.S. in 1929, but its distribution was severely limited because silent movies were being ignored in favor of sound films. The American distributor, Film Arts Guild, went out of business shortly after the film was released, and “Nosferatu” was eventually doomed to public domain status.

As regular readers of this column know, public domain (or PD for short) is a blessing and a curse. The lack of copyright protection allows a film to be widely duped, thus expanding its visibility. Many of the most beloved cult films have achieved their classic status thanks to being PD flicks, including “Nosferatu.”

Unfortunately, most of the duping degrades the visual quality of the film. All of the copies of “Nosferatu” now in circulation have been duped from the surviving European prints (which were already well-worn by the time they crossed the Atlantic). And some of these dupes appear to be several generations removed from the original nitrate sources, thus distorting the visual style that Murnau was striving to achieve. And more than a few of them are also badly edited. The copy I fell asleep watching, which I videotaped years ago from a PBS broadcast, ran just over an hour. Most reputable DVD copies are closer to 85 minutes.

There is little reason for me to recall the plot of “Nosferatu,” particularly since the “Dracula” plotline is so familiar. However, “Nosferatu” differs from the Stoker novel in two significant ways. First, the vampire Count Orlok looks like a monster. With his rodent features, talon fingernails and demented gaze, he offers one of the most memorable visages in motion pictures. Max Schreck’s presence has deservedly achieved iconic status, and his lack of subsequent memorable roles has helped to add an air of mystery to his reputation (there is even a phony tale that Schreck and Alfred Abel, the star of “Metropolis,” were the same man).

The second change to the Stoker tale: Orlok travels from his Transylvanian castle to Bremen along with coffins that are filled with earth and rats (this vampire is closer in kinship to rats instead of bats). His mission is to bring the plague to the unsuspecting German city. In this aspect of the tale, some contemporary writers have questioned whether Orlok is meant to be an anti-Semitic caricature (both in the exaggerated physiognomy and in being blamed for the spread of the plague). However, in the context of “Nosferatu,” I don’t see that argument as being valid.

So why am I underwhelmed with “Nosferatu”? Well, were do I begin?

For starters, only Max Schreck knows how to act. Even by the standards of 1920s silent cinema, the performances in “Nosferatu” are painfully exaggerated. Most flagrant in their hamming are Alexander Granach as Knock (he makes Dwight Frye’s Renfield from the 1931 “Dracula” seem like a model of restraint) and Gustav von Wangenheim as Thomas Hutter (I hate to be cruel, but the man looks like a clown and acts like a fool). It is easy to root for Schreck, since he is the only performer who knows how to connect with the camera.

Murnau has been praised for his masterful Expressionist vision in “Nosferatu,” but the Expressionism is only apparent in the scenes involving Orlok. And for most of the film, Orlok is not present. Thus, we have a fairly ordinary silent film that abruptly blossoms with wild tilted-angle and heavily shadowed scenes whenever Orlok is around, then reverts to its quotidian shadings when the vampire is absent.

Even worse for me – there is absolutely nothing scary about “Nosferatu.” It is literally a horror film without horror. Orlok is a discomfiting presence, to be certain, but he couldn’t scare a child. In comparison, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is far more eerie simply because his physical presence is the antithesis of monstrosity: suave, sophisticated, continental and (for his era) sexually charged. Admittedly, the Lugosi “Dracula” is a rickety movie – but Lugosi’s performance transcends the film’s limitations and redefined the concept of a monster.

As a side note, it is interesting that Tod Browning, who directed Lugosi as Dracula, opted for the Murnau approach of the vampire-as-monster for his 1927 “London After Midnight.” That flick offered America’s first vampire with Lon Chaney as a saw-toothed ghoul. But stylish vampires clearly won out over ugly bloodsuckers: Browning’s 1935 remake of “London After Midnight,” “Mark of the Vampire,” cast Lugosi in what was basically a reprise of his Dracula persona.

Finally, I find it difficult to watch “Nosferatu” simply because it is so hard to find a decent copy of the film. There are several versions that claim to be restorations, but there is no definitive be-all/end-all version. The closest thing to perfect may be the Kino on Video release of a 1994 restoration from Italy’s Cineteca del Comune di Bologna. That release claims to be the “authorized edition” of “Nosferatu” (whatever that means – it is still a PD film).

As I stated at the beginning of this essay, I hate to be the lonely, angry voice to rail against what is generally regarded as a classic. But in my book, “Nosferatu” is an overrated and somewhat boring endeavor.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on October 26, 2007 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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