The Hope Lies at 16 Frames Per Second Guide To… Nosferatu

Our screening of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu takes place tomorrow night, so with that in mind we thought it worthy of putting together a bit of a background/resource on the film and it’s creator.

Nosferatu is one of the defining works of the German Expressionism period. While it may not have been the first (common thought places that honour upon Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, although some argue that the earlier Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener film The Student Of Prague is) nor is it the grandest, but it’s the one film that the regular cinemagoer would cite. Expressionism in the cinema has roots in the theatre, with the stage work of Max Reinhardt thought to form the foundations of what would happen later in the cinema. Symbolism and heightened stylistic technique were at the forefront of the movement, which spanned beyond the cinema screen in to architecture and painting, although it goes without saying that the cinema screen saw the strengths of several mediums converge in to one. Figures such as Fritz Lang, Joe May, Georg Wilhelm Pabst and Paul Leni produced some of the major works of the time, while works in a similar note elsewhere in Europe (Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc and Vampyr) saw a major cultural identity for European cinema that placed it firmly at the polar of the work ongoing in Hollywood at the time (in turn leading to a shift that would remain in place to this day). 

Murnau was a great filmmaker. Possibly the greatest of the silent period. His Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans stands as the greatest example of what the cinema was capable of in the pre-sound years, while Der Letzte Mann, and the “unchained camera technique” that Murnau and his cinematographer Karl Freund developed on that film is arguably the greatest invention in all of the cinema. The director died prematurely, on the cusp of the noise revolution that enveloped the cinema in the early 1930’s. That Murnau never got to work during that period is one of the great tragedies of cinema (although it is worth noting that he did purposefully avoid sound for the last 2 years of his life).

Bram Stoker? The estate of Stoker, aghast at the thought of someone adapting the work of their benefactor without due care (and without paying enough money) pulled out all the stops in order to prevent Murnau’s name from bearing that of the great Count. Thus, Dracula became Orlok. It’s an early example of behind-the-scenes, cross-medium legal wranglings too, something we wish that Murnau hadn’t been a pioneering force in… (see. Bond, Tolkien for recent examples of similar behaviour). Murnau’s iteration of the character has itself passed over in to the pop-culture lexicon, having appeared in everything from The Fast Show to The Simpsons.

Max Schreck was not a real vampire. It’s a nice theory (and one that inspired a neat little film in the shape of  E. Elias Merhige’s The Shadow Of The Vampire a few years ago) but it’s categorically not true. Prior to Nosferatu Schreck spent a number of years treading the boards at the Munich Kammerspiele prior to breaking through in to features, working with Max Reinhardt along the way. He would act for Murnau again in Die Finanzen des Großherzogs, before passing away in the 1930’s. 

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