Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

Nosferatu at 100, Part III: Release, reception, legacy

Though Nosferatu was a German film, it was first screened in The Hague, The Netherlands on 16 February 1922, at the Flora and Olympia cinemas. The film had its grand German première on 4 March 1922 by the Berlin Zoological Garden’s Marmorsaal (Marble Hall). This was part of Das Fest des Nosferatua party where guests were asked to come in Biedermeier (1815–48) costumes.

Prior to the screening, a prologue written by Kurt Alexander and based on Goethe’s Faust was read, accompanied by Otto Kembach’s band playing Hans Erdmann’s score. Erdmann himself conducted.

Nosferatu was followed by Die Serenade, a dance play also written by Erdmann and performed by a dancer from the Berlin State Opera. Then there was a costume ball, whose attendees included many prominent filmmakers of the era, such as Ernst Lubitsch, Richard Oswald, Heinz Schall, Hanns Kräly, and Johannes Riemann.

The theatrical release was on 15 March 1922 at the Primus Palace.

Several days after Nosferatu‘s première, another of director F.W. Murnau’s films, The Burning Soil, was released. This created lots of extra buzz for both Nosferatu and Murnau, and the reviews were overwhelming positive. However, some critics didn’t think it felt enough like a horror film on account of the bright lighting, clarity of images, and technical perfection.

Despite mostly garnering praise, Nosferatu wasn’t a financial success, and UFA, Germany’s primary film production company, refused to screen it at their major theatres. Nosferatu could only be shown at small indie theatres. Prana-Film, the company who produced it, had also already blown through the several million marks given them as start-up capital from Silesian financiers with little experience in the film business. They spent too much on advertising and other aspects of the film.

Bankruptcy proceedings opened in August 1922, and the film was seized. Prana’s troubles increased when Bram Stoker’s widow Florence sued them for copyright infringement. In July 1925, a Berlin court ordered all copies of the film and anything else related to it be destroyed.

Mrs. Stoker also prevented London’s Film Society from screening Nosferatu with a copy already in England, but they managed to hide it. Sadly, when they tried again to screen it four years later, Mrs. Stoker succeeded in having the copy destroyed. Hypocritically, she was already in film right negotiations for Dracula with Universal.

Luckily, many copies survived undetected abroad, sometimes with different intertitles, character names, and editing. In the late 1920s, a French version with only 31 intertitles (versus the original 115) became wildly popular among André Breton and his Surrealist friends. When this version came to the U.S. and had the intertitles translated, the characters were renamed after Stoker’s characters, and Wisborg was changed to Bremen.

A version released on 16 May 1930 in Vienna was set to music by the recently-created German Film Production company and given the title The Twelfth Hour—A Night of Horrors. It had a happy ending, and the characters got entirely new names. It also contained many scenes filmed by Murnau and cameraman Günther Krampf but never released.

Irony of ironies, this edit was unauthorized itself, and Murnau’s name didn’t appear in the credits!

Since Prana never applied for copyright in the U.S., Nosferatu entered the public domain by default. It came back into the public eye when it was featured (in a quite shortened cut) on the 1960s show Silents Please! Before long, it was widely distributed on home video under many different names and versions.

Nosferatu officially entered worldwide public domain in 2019.

The first restoration effort began in 1981, and many others have followed in the ensuing decades. One such restoration was based on a first-generation nitrate copy of Nosferatu which was unearthed by Murnau scholar Luciano Berriatúa in the Cinémathèque Française and has been shown at several film festivals. Since each version uses different music, tinting, presentation speed, contrast, etc., they’re all separately copyrighted.

In 1979, director Werner Herzog did a remake, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night), called Nosferatu the Vampyre in English. Klaus Kinski stars as Count Dracula.

Two other planned remakes were respectively announced as being in development in 2014 and 2015, respectively, but there’s no news as to their current status.

Countless songs, music videos, films, video games, TV shows, and works of literature over the last 100 years have referenced or been influenced by Nosferatu, and an operatic version was composed by Alva Henderson and Dan Gioia in 2004 and released in 2005.

Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

Nosferatu at 100, Part II: Behind the scenes

In loving memory of all those who perished 84 years ago today during Krystallnacht, and all the survivors who have since left the material world

As most people probably know, Nosferatu is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. To try to avoid legal trouble, screenwriter Henrik Galeen changed the title and the characters’ names, omitted a lot of secondary characters, and moved the setting from 1890s England to 1838 pre-unificiation Germany. The name of the principal town, Wisborg, is a portmanteau of Wismar and Lübeck.

Unlike Count Dracula, Count Orlok isn’t interested in creating new Vampyres. Instead, he kills his victims through the Plague. When he does drink Ellen’s blood at the end, it doesn’t turn her into a Vampyre.

Also different from the novel, Count Orlok sleeps during the day and avoids sunlight because it would kill him, not merely weaken him.

Nosferatu was the one and only film produced by Prana-Film, founded by Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau. This short-lived studio was named after the Hindu concept of prana, a Sanskrit word with at least 14 meanings including breath, life force, energy, vigour, soul, spirit, principle of life, vital air, and breath of life. It’s believed to permeate all of existence, even inanimate objects, and originates from the Sun and connects all elements.

Prana hoped to produce supernatural- and occult-themed films, but because Nosferatu was a financial failure, and Bram Stoker’s widow Florence sued them, they had to declare bankruptcy soon after its release.

Albin Grau was an occultist, artist, and architect who served as producer and costume, set, and advertising designer. He was also responsible for the mystical and occult overtones and Orlok’s creepy appearance.

Grau got the idea for a Vampyre film based on an encounter he had with a Serbian farmer in 1916, when he was serving in WWI. The farmer said his father was a Vampyre and one of the undead.

Henrik Galeen was chosen as screenwriter due to his previous success with horror films such as Der Student von Prag and Der Golem. Rising star Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was chosen as director. Though he followed the script very closely, he also rewrote the last twelve pages. Galeen’s corresponding texts are lost. Murnau used a metronome to aid his actors’s rhythm, and made preliminary artistic sketches of each scene.

Filming commenced in July 1921. Locations included Wismar, Lübeck, Rostok, Sylt Island, Lauenberg, the Tegel Forest, and Berlin’s Johannisthal Studios. The Transylvania scenes were shot in northern Slovakia.

Due to budget constraints, cameraman Fritz Arno Wager only had one camera (hence why there was only one original film negative).

Albin Grau calligraphed the 115 intertitles (quite a high number for the time). Dialogue appears in garish colours and modern script; the chronicler’s report is in stylized Latin cursive on a paper-like background; the letter are in German Kurrent; and the excerpts from Book of the Vampyres are in broken block typeface.

Hans Erdmann, a classically-trained composer and violinist with a Ph.D. in Catholic church music, was selected to write the score. Sadly, most of the original music has been lost, despite having been published by Bote & Bock for salon orchestras and large orchestras. The total playing time was 40 minutes, leading film scholars to speculate portions of the score were intended to be repeated.

Max Schreck, a largely unknown actor, was cast as Count Orlok. Nosferatu was only his third film, and his first time playing a lead role. Gustav von Wangenheim was cast as Thomas Hutter; Greta Schröder was cast as Ellen Hutter; and Alexander Granach was cast as Knock.

To try to drum up interest during the run-up to its release, Nosferatu was extensively advertised in issue 21 of Bühne und Film magazine, with stills, essays, production reports, a summary, and a piece on Vampyres by Albin Grau. The première was planned as a huge society event and party, and invitations to Das Fest des Nosferatu were asked to come in Biedermeier (1815–48) costumes.

But despite all the effort put into the film and its publicity, it wouldn’t receive its full, proper due for many years.

Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

Nosferatu at 100, Part I: General overview

Note: This text is directly lifted almost entirely from my 2017 post I did about Nosferatu on its 95th anniversary. My intention always was to write a much more in-depth series for its 100th anniversary.

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horrors), one of director F.W. Murnau’s most famous films, and one of the few silents most people outside the fan community know exists, had its grand première 4 March 1922 by the Berlin Zoological Garden’s Marmorsaal (Marble Hall). Because Bram Stoker’s heirs sued over this unauthorized Dracula adaptation, and a court ruled all prints be destroyed, Nosferatu almost became one of the far too many lost films.

Thankfully, many copies outside of Germany escaped the notice of Bram Stoker’s enraged widow Florence, and today the film is widely considered a classic of horror and German Expressionism.

In 1838 Wisborg (a fictional city), Thomas Hutter is sent to Transylvania by his employer, real estate agent Knock, to visit Count Orlok. Rumours about Knock circulate, but one thing known for sure is that he pays his employees well.

Orlok wants to buy a house in Wisborg, and Knock tempts Hutter with extra money. He says Hutter may have to go to a bit of trouble, with some sweat and blood.

Knock suggests Hutter offer Orlok the empty house across from his, and bids him a good trip to the land of the phantoms.

Hutter’s wife Ellen (whose opening scenes call to mind a D.W. Griffith ingénue made to act like an overgrown little girl) is very worried about him, but he assures her he’ll be fine.

Hutter stops by an inn in the Carpathians, and everyone responds with horror when he announces he’s on his way to Count Orlok. The owner warns him not to go any further tonight, saying the werewolf is roaming the forests.

That night, Hutter begins reading a book about Vampyres.

Hutter sets out on his last leg in the morning, and urges his riders to hurry so they get there before dark. They stop before the destination, claiming a bad feeling.

As soon as Hutter crosses the bridge, he’s seized by eerie visions. The creepiness increases when an eerie-looking coachman gives him a lightning-speed ride the rest of the way.

Orlok (Max Schreck, whose surname means “terror”) is displeased to have been kept waiting so long, till nearly midnight, when the servants are asleep.

Orlok’s house gives Hutter the creeps, and he’s further creeped out by Orlok’s weird reaction to his bloody finger. Hutter tries to leave, but Orlok begs him to stay until day, when he sleeps, completely dead to the world.

In the morning, Hutter writes a letter to Ellen to reassure her he’s alright. By evening, Hutter shows Orlok Ellen’s picture, and Orlok remarks on her lovely neck. Orlok also says he’s buying the deserted house across from Hutter’s.

Hutter reads more of his Vampyre book, which makes him even more eager to get out of there. His terror goes through the roof when Orlok stalks towards him.

Meanwhile, Ellen is sleepwalking on the balcony. Her friend Harding catches her before she can fall off, and calls for a doctor. Ellen has a terrifying vision of her husband in danger.

The doctor says it’s just a case of mild blood congestion.

At dawn, Hutter finds Orlok asleep in a coffin. Shortly afterwards, he sees Orlok moving coffins into the courtyard, piling them on a carriage, getting into the one on top, and driving away.

Hutter collapses and is brought to hospital.

Orlok boards the schooner Empusa with coffins full of dirt. Meanwhile, Knock goes crazy under his spell.

While Hutter hurries home, Empusa also draws ever closer to Wisborg, bringing with it the Plague.

Will Orlok’s evil spell be broken before all of Wisborg is destroyed?

Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

One boring night in a dull old dark house

Released 2 October 1922, One Exciting Night, directed by D.W. Griffith, is one of the earliest old dark house films, a horror subgenre set in, well, an old dark house, with a lot of strangers gathered/stuck there as they try to solve a mystery. The house isn’t complete without hidden passageways, and it’s always a dark and stormy night. There’s also always a criminal, nutcase, or creature on the loose.

Griffith was inspired to write the script because of the successful plays The Bat (1920) and The Cat and the Canary (1922), both of which were later adapted into several screen versions. The preview audiences were underwhelmed, which compelled Griffith back to the studio to shoot a much more dramatic ending. He knew people had come to expect edge-of-your-seat, spectacular, drama-dripping conclusions to his films.

Stuart Bruce-Douglas and a woman taking care of his ill sister-in-law are on their way to join his brother in Africa, along with a devoted servant of the brother (referred to as the racist slur Kaffir). When news arrives of the brother’s death, his wife expires of shock and heartache. Stuart decides to claim the family inheritance by sending his sister-in-law’s companion away with his baby niece, the real heiress.

Sixteen years later, in Louisville, Kentucky, Agnes Harrington (Carol Dempster) has every material comfort she could want, but longs for the love of her supposed mother (Margaret Dale). Mrs. Harrington does nothing but scold her for every little thing.

J. Wilson Rockmaine (Morgan Wallace) then arrives for a visit. Mr. Rockmaine, in his early forties, believes the joys of youth will return to him with a young girl’s love. (Like so many other Griffith heroines, she’s made to act much younger than her age.)

Meanwhile, in an office far away, a confession from Stuart crosses a lawyer’s desk. If this matter isn’t taken care of before 16 May, the estate will revert to other heirs.

A year later, we shift to the Fairfax estate on Louisville’s outskirts, long unoccupied since the young heir, John, has been studying abroad. Unoccupied, that is, except by the old caretaker, who’s motivated by greed. His real estate business partner, Clary Johnson (Herbert Sutch), has become a bootlegger, and is using the estate for storage. When word of John’s return reaches them, a new place has to be found.

Parker, the butler, has heard strange stories about ghosts in the house since returning with John (Henry Hull). John dismisses the rumors, suggesting the ghosts were tramps squatting in the house.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Harrington has lost her fortune through bad business investments, and schemes to marry Agnes off to Mr. Rockmaine to regain the family money and position. After an unsuccessful meeting between Agnes and Mr. Rockmaine, Mrs. Harrington confesses that Mr. Rockmaine saw her stealing a watch from another woman, but decided not to expose her for Agnes’s sake. If Agnes marries him, it’ll guarantee his continued silence. For the first time, Mrs. Harrington shows Agnes physical affection.

Agnes decides to sacrifice herself to this dude who’s over twice her age, though she’s not happy in this sham engagement.

At a lawn party, John spies Agnes and begs his aunt to introduce them. When they’re alone, he shows her a picture of Agnes he cut out of her college paper. John is quite clearly smitten, and Agnes is charmed, but she believes nothing can come of this attraction on account of her unwanted betrothal.

Back at the party, John invites a group of people to his estate for a fishing party. Shortly afterwards, the bootleggers resurface and attack John. They also have scores to settle among themselves and money to hide. And then there’s a murder in the house, which John is wrongly accused of.

Since Griffith loved his long films, he spends about 90 minutes on mere setup before the old dark house aspect finally comes to the fore. But even then, things like shadows and hands grabbing people from behind a bookcase don’t feel particularly creepy, and we don’t get anything like cobwebs or windows being blown open. It’s also pretty obvious whodunnit. In good old dark house films, the audience never knows for sure until the big reveal.

And did I mention there are three white actors playing African–Americans, all acting like racist caricatures?

Griffith was out of his element making a mystery and horror film. This massive length would’ve worked much better for one of his dramas (though even they could’ve benefitted from some editing). At least the storm at the end is exciting.

Posted in 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A sextuple dose of antique horror

Welcome to this year’s celebration of classic silent and early sound horror films with landmark anniversaries! Sadly, the Monster template is no longer available. I’m so disappointed and upset! Every year, I looked forward to changing my blogs into that theme for October.

We’re starting off with the 1897 British film The X-Rays (sometimes called The X-Ray Fiend), directed by George Albert Smith. Many of Mr. Smith’s films feature horror and/or supernatural themes. Some sources say he also directed a lost 1897 film called The Haunted Castle, but most film scholars believe this is a misattribution to either the 1897 Georges Méliès film of the same name, or the 1896 Méliès film The House of the Devil, released as The Haunted Castle in the U.S.

An aggressive would-be suitor tries to woo a woman who wants none of it, and an X-ray machine appears and turns them into skeletons. The woman’s parasol also transmogrifies into just its metal supports. The special effects via jump-cuts were state of the art by 1890s standards.

The woman is played by Mr. Smith’s wife, Laura Bayley, and the man is comedian Tom Green.

Sorry there’s no soundtrack, but it’s only 44 seconds long

My yearly horror film spotlight wouldn’t be complete without grand master Georges Méliès! The first of the films featured this year is The Treasures of Satan (Les Trésors de Satan) (1902), released in the U.K. as The Devil’s Money Bags.

In a castle, Satan and two assistants put six moneybags into a long chest. After they leave, a stranger (Méliès) creeps in with the intent to steal the moneybags. He breaks the lock, and the moneybags begin dancing in the air. Then he sits on the chest, but is forced off when the lid flies up.

Six ladies in devil outfits pop out, each holding a moneybag which transmogrifies into a spear. When the would-be robber jumps into the chest to take shelter from their torture, the chest changes position, and he’s left exposed. Then the ladies jump back into the chest, and the chest continues moving all around the room before turning into a demon. More torture follows.

Finally, Satan and the demon capture the robber and put him back into the chest. The ladies return and dance as the chest explodes in fire and smoke.

The moneybags are safe and sound after all that drama.

Satan in Prison (Satan en Prison) is a simple story of an imprisoned man (Méliès) who conjures up a fireplace, a table, chairs, a tablecloth, plates, silverware, a mirror, a woman, and various items of home décor. When the guards return, he makes all these objects disappear as magically as they appeared, and reveals himself as Satan. He then disappears with the aid of his cape.

The Red Spectre (Le Spectre Rouge) was directed by Segundo de Chomón (Segundo Víctor Aurelio Chomón y Ruiz). Señor de Chomón is widely considered the greatest Spanish silent film director, and often compared to Méliès because he used many of the same magical illusion tricks and camera work.

In 1901, he began distributing his films through the French company Pathé, and moved to Paris in 1905. He remained with Pathé even after returning to Barcelona in 1910.

In an underground grotto, a dancing coffin opens amid flames to reveal a demonic magician in a skeleton suit and with a magnificent cape. He conjures up five dancing ladies, flying flames, and decorative gold cauldrons which he lights. He then brings back two of the ladies, wraps them in a black tarpaulin, and makes them levitate and disappear. His next magic trick is making the ladies appear shrunken-down inside large bottles which he fills with liquid.

A Good Spirit does some back and forth tricks, including an easel projecting films and throwing objects at him from thin air. Finally, the Good Spirit reveals an area of the grotto with the other ladies, and she takes him downstage, pours something on him, and turns him into a lifeless skeleton.

Satan at Play (Satan S’Amuse) (1907), also directed by Señor de Chomón, is frequently confused with The Red Spectre at IMDB and on YouTube. They’re obviously two completely different films, which makes me wonder if people even bothered watching before mindlessly copying and pasting a synopsis. Sadly, I couldn’t find a single video of it anywhere, because everyone mislabeled The Red Spectre!

The Devil is bored. He goes back to Earth with a magic elevator. He surprises two sewer workers, disguises himself as a city man, and spreads improbable events: quarrel with a coachman, altercation with a city sergeant, the mystification of a barman, and quid pro quo with couples. He gets trapped in a cage with a young woman and goes down to Hell. It is revealed that the young woman is in fact Madame Devil, disguised by jealousy.

The sixth film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was released 16 January 1912. James Cruze, a prolific actor of the silent era who also directed many films from 1919–1937, stars in the lead role, and Florence LaBadie (the Thanhouser Girl) plays his sweetheart. Mr. Cruze’s real-life first wife Marguerite Snow appears as an extra.

Who isn’t familiar with this story? A young doctor concocts a potion to transform himself into a grotesque creature, who commits evil acts and obeys his baser instincts. Before long, he no longer needs to drink the potion to transform, and his alter ego becomes more and more deranged, with tragic consequences.