Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Plague songs… Nosferatu (1922), Barbican with Paul Robinson’s HarmonieBand

Well, show me the way to the next vampiric count, no don’t ask why…

Long ago I resolved to try and write about the cream of the silent cannon only after screenings with live music: these being singular occasions in themselves, musical theatre that is unique to this branch of cinematic evolution. There’s pretty much nothing new to say about films like Nosferatu (so, stop typing then… as my friend Scouse Phil might say) except for afternoons like this one when eine Symphonie des Grauens plays out alongside a new and distinctive score.

Paul Robinson’s HarmonieBand specialise in silent film accompaniment and their mixture of Weimar style and modern, minimalist composition is naturally perfect for Murnau’s Dracula Prime. This music is the rooted in the sounds of a society coming to terms with the plague of devastation brought about by war and economic collapse. A Germany creeping warily through the early twenties waiting for the next damn thing to go wrong…

Dead flowers...Greta Schröder
The band featured Walter Fabeck on piano, Kim Mackrell cello, Julia Butterworth clarinets and sax, Dai Pritchard saxophones and flute, Martin Pyne on vibraphone and percussion and Paul Robinson conducting whilst also playing electronic keyboards and accordion. Together they produced a relentlessly interesting score that moved with the narrative in sympathetic unison for the full film: driving along with the emotion and never over-playing its hand.

This was the 2013 restoration which, as Paul explained in his introduction, was only made possible by copies of the film from outside Germany. Murnau and his scriptwriter Henrik Galeen had hoped that by changing a name here and there they would be able to tell the tale of Dracula without troubling the estate of Bram Stoker but it was not that simple and they had to destroy all copies in distribution.

This restoration is slightly longer than previous versions and is complete with the original tints: it felt richer on screen than my memory of the DVD.

The sinister sky and haunted hills
The cinematography of Fritz Arno Wagner and Günther Krampf – so important to this film of shadows and extraordinary vistas – is better appreciated by the screening’s scale. They capture the unsettling darkness in the tumbledown buildings of Wisborg and enable Murnau to make even the Carpathian Mountains gloriously sinister.

Lotte Eisner (in The Haunted Screen naturlich!) observes that Murnau was one of the few German film-makers to have an innate love of landscape more typical of the Swedes. She notes his origins in Westphalia : “a region of vast pastures where enormous peasants breed heavy-boned plough-horses…”.  Murnau was 6 ft 11 inches tall.

These unusual location shots apart, Murnau does his best work up close with his horror derived from action and reaction as characters and cameras interact to create emotional shocks. Ellen recoils on seeing Count Orlok gazing out from his gothic windows; at first we can only sense his presence but the camera deliberately forces our gaze and we see him and feel his unrelenting hunger…

There are many such moments when Murnau uses Max Schreck’s extraordinary visuals with low angles and impossible trajectories enhancing his alien essence. It’s hard to believe that after each day’s wrap, Max would just wash up and head down to the bierkeller for a schnapps and a laugh.

Alexander Granach is more conventionally weird as Knock, a man in a constant state of agitation, his own mind so submerged by the Count’s will ahe pathetically-mimmicks his blood lust, insects his prey. Gustav von Wangenheim as our nervy hero Thomas Hutter – the man sent out to meet the Count – was clearly the inspiration for Roman Polanski in The Fearless Vampire Hunters and Greta Schröder’s Ellen seems struck by the certainty of fate even as she learns that her husband must travel out to Transylvania…

The story is ultimately all about the Count and Ellen, his journey to find her and the many who must die in service of his needs on the way… on the boat and in the town sad coffins carried in mute procession as the plague ravages.

Your wife has a beautiful neck...
Nosferatu remains one of the most genuinely unsettling films of all time and I’m sorry, People in the Row Behind Me, if you found some parts chuckle-some but this was made in 1922 and maybe you were expecting some CGI and severed heads? This film spooked audiences that had lived through the Great War: they deserve consideration…

I also hadn’t appreciated that writer Galeen had already worked on The Student of Prague (1913) – no, finally, available in restored form on the EditionFilmuseum DVD set! – as well as Der Golem (1920). This film has more in common with the former film, with very humanised horror: Count Orlok is a threatening presence but it’s the reactions of his victims that make the story from the sailors bravely tying themselves to their ship in futile defiance to Ellen’s willingness to sacrifice all to save her love and her city.

This is what elevates the story about mere shock horror: these are ordinary folk fighting against an immutable foe and nearly impossible odds. Orlok is mass murder and as the crosses are chalked on so many doors in the town, we know the cause is no romantic, sexualised, vampire but a relentless predator killing his prey and not converting them into the stylishly undead.

As Roger Ebert said writing in 2010: “Is Murnau's "Nosferatu" scary in the modern sense? Not for me. I admire it more for its artistry and ideas, its atmosphere and images... It knows none of the later tricks of the trade... But "Nosferatu" remains effective: It doesn’t scare us, but it haunts us.”

Consider me haunted too by both the images and by Paul Robinson’s smashing score.

The 2013 restoration is available from MovieMail as part of the Masters of Cinema series although it won’t have the score. You probably already have it but if the HarmonieBand play this again please don’t miss it!

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