Saturday, May 14, 2022

Quote of the Day (Nigel Andrews, on ‘Nosferatu,’ ‘The Masterpiece of Broad-Daylight Horror’)

“It's a masterpiece, the masterpiece of broad-daylight horror….The film’s poetry of terror comes from real locations, mainly shot in daytime.

“Cityscapes: the unforgettable hollow-eyed tenement building (filmed in Lübeck) in which the vampire finds his last-act townhouse. Nature: dark mountains and bristling forests. Castles: the stone arches and beetling walls of Nosferatu’s Carpathian home. Those arches become a master-touch. In shot after shot, Max Schreck’s hideous Count, dressed to kill and made up likewise, emerges from the inverted U of dark tunnels or from frame-fitting gothic doorways, like a creature serially birthed or rebirthed from vertical coffin-wombs.”—Nigel Andrews, “‘Nosferatu’ at 100: Why the Vampire MovieMasterpiece Still Has Bite,” The Financial Times, Apr. 5, 2022

Much like the monster it depicts, the German silent film Nosferatu has managed to live on despite a sustained effort to kill it. It represented such a naked case of plagiarizing Dracula that the widow of novelist Bram Stoker won a copyright infringement lawsuit, and almost succeeded in destroying all known prints of it.

But one print made it out—to the United States, where it was already in the public domain and, thus, beyond the ability of any court to destroy. Copies were subsequently made from that single print, and it has since been studied in film school—and appreciated by horror fans—the world over.

(For a useful short history of this lawsuit and its aftermath, see Jonathan Bailey’s 2011 post from the “Plagiarism Today” blog.)

In 1979, Klaus Kinski, spending four hours a day in makeup, played “Count Orlok” in Werner Herzog’s sound/color version of the film. But it can’t exceed in influence F.W. Murnau’s silent classic, whose use of shadows and stark black and white became synonymous with German Expressionism.

Even this remake wasn’t the end of the rat-like Count Orlok. Screenwriter Daniel Waters and director Tim Burton alluded to the old masterpiece by bestowing the name “Max Schreck” on the ruthless business mogul who aids the Penguin in Batman Returns.

In 2000, Willem Defoe played Schreck in an Oscar-nominated performance in Shadow of the Vampire. Written by Steven Katz and directed by E. Elias Merhige, the film offers a different kind of alternative history: what would have happened if the silent version’s director, F.W. Murnau, in an attempt at utmost realism, had cast a real vampire, Schreck, as the Count, then had to race to complete the movie before the actor consumed the entire cast and crew.

Films of the original will not only appreciate the recreation of iconic moments, but also many droll bits of dialogue, as when Murnau, introducing Schreck to everyone on the set, speaks of his “somewhat…unconventional” method of acting, or when the director, objecting to his star’s feasting on another actor, asks why he couldn’t have gone after the script girl. “I’ll eat her later,” Schreck responds.

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