Saturday, August 3, 2013

NOSFERATU (1922)

Very much a film ahead of its time, in many ways, not least of which was its innovations in piracy and copyright infringement, which almost got NOSFERATU buried for good by the litigious powers of the Stoker family.  That sentence fragment is very long and draining, much like the first half of this film, which holds true for Dracula as a concept, in my opinion.  Everything before the boat ride is kind of draggy.  And since NOS is a barely-reworked derivation of Dracula, it falls prey to the same tempo challenges.  


Expressionism means that everybody has lots of expressions!  That's Hutter, who must abandon his habit of smiling freakishly in order to deliver some documents to Count Orlak in Transylvania.  Ostensibly, these papers relate to property, but look more like a child's treasure map.


In his book, Nicholas Schreck claims that there are tons of real occult symbols imprinted hereon, but I mostly see crosses, iron crosses, a really quick skull doodle, and a Star of David with a dollar sign stomach tattoo.  The contents really aren't important, though, what we're supposed to grasp is that this is no boilerplate legal form, it's a jumble of arcane symbols.  So Hutter travels to the Arkansas of Europe, where he immediately gets a werewolf alert.  Note: this werewolf is way cuter than the Cherokee werewolves who don't have body hair.


Finally, he meets Orlak, who not only has weird decorating tastes...


...but tries to conceal his batlike ears under a poofy hat.  Orlak's appearance is ratlike, facially, with what some say are exaggerated Jewish characteristics (nose-feratu).  The extent to which anti-Semitism was injected into this film is a well-covered topic (although somebody really should compare and contrast it to THE GOLEM sometime).  I'm not an expert in all that, so I'll limit my analysis to his look in general—very gaunt and scarecrow-esque, which plays into a scene that comes later in the film; elongated fingers not too dissimilar from what we saw in the China segment of DESTINY.  His face is enormous, like a puppet or a mask from Greek theatre.  Orlak's very visibly a monster, very much bereft of the sex appeal which Lugosi would later bring to this role.


If you don't know the story of Dracula, you should leave your computer and downsize your ignorance.  Suffice it to say that we get the same general plot here—Orlak becomes fascinated with a portrait of Hutter's sweetie and takes off for the more upscale Europe.


NOSFERATU is very deliberate in linking vampirism with disease.  Purported plague, rats, and coffins are the accouterments of Orlak.  It's a solid approach, especially given that diseases like AIDS practically seem to be manufactured so that vampires can be allegories for them.


But it's so wedded to the disease concept that it misses the other great vampiric metaphor: corruption.  We don't get any bloofer lady business here and pretty limited disintegration of the Renfield character, Knock (he already seems to be pretty debauched before the Count reaches civilization).  However, this is fetching Greta Schroder as Ellen Hutter, hypnotized and in a slinky nightgown.  I'll be in my bunk.


NOSFERATU really picks up steam once Orlak arrives in the town of Wisborg.  The images in the second half are much more striking, much more surreal.  


The pacing seems to intensify as well, although that's primarily a defect of the source material.  I love the final confrontation, as it seems that director F.W. Murnau is suddenly unleashing all of his energy and creativity in positing Orlak against(?) Ellen.


The last few moments of this film are all about Ellen Hutter's breast.  An area of erotic interest, yeah, but also the source of nourishment for new life and, oh yeah, the thing that covers the heart, which ladies need to live.  


You could make a convincing argument for this (unauthorized, bootleg, piraty) film being the definitive version of the Dracula story.  Even with the lackadaisical pacing at the beginning, it's still way more involving than the more famous Lugosi/Browning joint.  Time will tell whether latter-day Draculas can hold a candle to the breast-molesting Count Orlak.


[I think there's one more film to go and then the 1920s are done.  After that, I'm switching to single years.  The movies for September & October are not going to be part of this project, so you can look forward to less class and more trash very soon.]

RATING: 8/10

TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) 
2. Faust (1926)
3. The Golem (1920)
4.  Nosferatu (1922)
5. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
6. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
7. The Unknown (1927)
8. Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
9. The Wind (1928)
10. Der Müde Tod aka Destiny (1921)

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