Saturday, July 16, 2011

Great Film Draculas: Max Schreck as Nosferatu


Some think of me a Dracula-movie fanboy: One who lies for endless hours in my coffin, a TV nailed to the inside lid, my eyes painted with every shadowy frame of the hundred-plus adaptations and variations on the story that have unreeled across TV and movie screens in the last ninety years. 

Then, I rise from my coffin at sunset and casually clamber into your house, suck your blood, sow cruel dreams and leave you an anemic, raving husk.

Actually, though, I live by day and like spy films, mini-series, Brit/Euro mysteries, Art films, Film Noir, and Westerns more than I do most horror films. (Check out this sneer at the iconic True Blood. Then come n’ get me, fanboy!) In fact, if you press me hard enough—say with single malt—I’ll say that not only will I never see every vampire movie ever made, I don’t even like most Dracula adaptations.

Further, of that tiny handful I do like, there’s only one that I’d call a great movie and even makes my shuffling list of great horror films (James Whale’s Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, The Haunting (1963), The Innocents, Night of the Living Dead, Session 9 and a few others that waft in and out with my mood, like a moonlit curtain stirred by a cool wind).

That one Dracula movie—as singular as the Count himself--is Nosferatu: Eine Symphonien des Grauens, directed by F.W. Murnau (who would later direct Faust and Sunrise, great movies both). Released in 1922, it remains my favorite overall adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel and still conjures a weird magic, casts a tantalizing and eerie shadow.

Along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu is a classic example of German Expressionism, an art movement that lasted through the 1920s into the 1930s when the Nazis took over. The style remains hugely influential, falling like moonshadow over the films of Fritz Lang (a pioneer) and Alfred Hitchcock, the Universal horror films, Film Noir, and the films of Tim Burton and others.

These films told stories from the margins of German society and human conscious. They created an alchemy of silver light, angular shadows, disorienting camera angles and often bizarre sets. Considering the history of those times, some have wondered what exactly these films mean and whether they predicted the coming horrors.

Nosferatu follows Dracula’s plot line quite closely, but like most good adaptations of novelistic works, creates its own path. The producers, Prana Films, failed to get permission from Stoker’s widow, Florence, to make their adaptation, thinking that they could avoid a copyright suit with simple name changes. (For one, Dracula was renamed Orlock; Jonathan Harker, Hutter; Mina Harker, Ellen).

They fooled no one, especially Florence Stoker. She relentlessly and successfully sued. All copies were ordered destroyed and Prana closed shop after this one film. But the attempt to drive the stake through the heart of this classic also failed and this Dracula, as he should have, escaped the garlic-tipped stakes of the vampire hunters.  (The twisted tale of Nosferatu’s near-brush with oblivion and its resurrection is well told in David Skal’s excellent cultural history of Dracula, Hollywood Gothic.)

Nosferatu does look somewhat creaky and dated today—it starts slow, the special effects are simple, and the broad theatrical performances by the supporting cast makes even me smirk—but it has a fearless imagination, brought to life by Murnau with help from co-producer and designer Albin Grau and captured with painterly compositions, create a rare experience. Nosferatu has the charge of a great dream—vivid, choppy, disjointed, fragmentary, unsettling, and haunting.

Watching Nosferatu is like struggling to remember a dream upon awakening: It’s a montage of fairy-tale fragments, starting from the moment that Max Schreck as Orlock creeps like a spider from his burrow across his castle courtyard to welcome the fly into his parlor (though I wish they had held that shot just a little longer, to increase the sense of entrapment, to corner not just Hutter, but us).

From there, it’s one eerie moment after another: Orlock’s stalking of Hutter; his journey on the freighter to Germany; the way he springs like an erection from his coffin; his slow walk up on the ship’s deck from the subconscious to reality, a black shadow against the sky.

Nosferatu is the first movie made from Dracula and its star, Max Schreck, is the first of the great screen Draculas. Schreck’s name—his real one--is from the German for “terror” and he lives up to it as the most ugly, most bizarre Dracula of all. Great makeup portrays him as the product an unholy union of rat, bat, spider and human corpse, a pestilential fiend, a picture of decay, degradation and stark, mindless hunger, a creeping spirit who turns the world around him into a pale desert with his every step.

He is a creature made of shadow: I still smile at the sight of his iconic silhouette creeps up the stairs and reaches for the door to Ellen’s room and how its clawed hand grabs her face. I also love Orlock’s end, after Ellen traps him by her bed until sunup with the promise of human love, a nice departure from Stoker’s version. Throughout the film, he fades in and fades out until he finally dissolves in the morning sun. Like the memory of a dream, his image is intangible, but real.

Max Schreck was a noted German character actor in his day. He stood 6’3” but seems even taller in Nosferatu. Even without the fantastic makeup, he was striking, which made him more suitable for characters parts than leads. It also led to fanciful speculation that he really was a vampire. But he was as mortal as the rest of us, dying of a heart attack in 1936.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


Darkeva said...

Hi Thomas,
Glad I stopped by to read this wonderful post on "Nosferatu." I became very interested in the story of the actor, Max Von Schreck, whose name really does, fittingly, mean "terror" in German, and you're definitely right about the part of him not needing makeup to look creepy ;-) Great post, and I'm glad you pointed me to it! :-)


Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks a lot, Eva! Glad to liked it!