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 1910s, 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

One antique horror short and a trifecta of lost features

La Folie du Docteur Tube, released 1915 in France, was directed by cinematic pioneer Abel Gance. It seems to fall within the parameters of sci-fi horror, and features a mad scientist who creates a white powder causing hallucinations. He gives the powder to a dog first, then his assistant, a boy in the lab, himself, two young ladies, and their fiancés. The two couples are so upset by these distorted images, a fight breaks out, and it’s up to Dr. Tube to restore order and peace.

These crazed sights, which appear like images from a funhouse mirror, were created with distorting lenses.

Albert Dieudonné, who started acting in 1908 and went on to play the title role of Gance’s 1927 epic Napoléon, appears as one of the young men.

Mortmain, which premièred 29 August 1915 and went into general release 6 September 1915, is one of the all too many lost films of the silent era. It was based on Arthur C. Train’s 1907 novel of the same name, which was originally released in serial form on The Saturday Evening Post on 2 June and 9 June 1906.

This was one of the very first entries in the alien hand subgenre of body horror, in which one’s hands act of their own volition, as if they’re possessed or transplanted from another body.

Dr. Pennison Crisp (what an unfortunate forename!) proves limb-grafting is possible by showing friends and students a cat with a grafted paw. His buddy Mortmain, a rare art collector and talented musician, is very impressed.

Meanwhile, Mortmain is deep in debt to banker Gordon Russell, the ward of his fiancée Bella Forsythe. Predictably, Gordon is also in love with Bella. (This might be a lost film, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts he’s old enough to be her dad, seeing as he’s her ward. That trope creeps me out so much!)

Gordon makes Bella’s brother Tom disgrace himself and forces Mortmain into bankruptcy. Flaggs, who works for Gordon’s lawyer, overhears Mortmain saying he’d like to kill Gordon. Mortmain then learns Gordon was murdered. This news so shocks him, he faints and hurts his hand.

Dr. Crisp has to amputate, and grafts on Tom’s hand. Tom agrees to this macabre operation because he’s suspected of the murder and offered $10,000 for his hand. He dies during the surgery, but Mortmain survives, and gradually goes insane as Flaggs bankrupts him and Bella is afraid to be touched by him. The transplanted hand also goes nuts.

Then Mortmain wakes up from the fog of anesthesia, and sees Tom’s hand choking Flaggs. It was only a dream!

The Head of Janus (Der Janus-Kopf), also lost, premièred 26 August 1920 and went into general release 17 September 1920. It starred the incredible Conrad Veidt and was directed by the legendary F.W. Murnau. This was an unauthorized adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Just as with Murnau’s unauthorized screen adaptation of Dracula two years later, names were changed.

Dr. Warren (Veidt) buys a bust of Janus, the two-headed Roman god of doorways, for his girlfriend Jane Lanyon (Margarete Schlegel, who escaped to England with her Jewish husband and son in 1935). When Jane refuses the gift, Dr. Warren is compelled to keep it in his own home.

This bust proceeds to transforms Dr. Warren into Mr. O’Connor, and whips him up into a rage. While acting as Mr. O’Connor, he storms over to Jane’s house, kidnaps her, and drags her back to his lab.

Dr. Warren is really ashamed and horrified when he comes back to himself and realises what he did. To prevent this from happening again, he attempts to sell the bust at auction, but it’s already too late. The bust has him under such hypnotic power, he buys it back himself.

During his second transformation as Mr. O’Connor, he runs amok, committing wanton acts of violence in the streets. Just like in all other versions of this famous story, there isn’t a very happy ending.

Béla Lugosi appears as Dr. Warren’s butler.

The House of Whispers, our final lost film this year, released October 1920. It tells the story of Spaulding Nelson, who moves into an apartment his uncle vacated due to phantom screams and whispers. While investigating, Spaulding meets neighbour Barbara Bradford. Her sister Clara is going crazy from the constant sound of her dead husband Roldo’s voice.

It turns out Roldo’s still alive and in league with Henry Kent, architect of this House of Whispers. This house is full of secret passageways enabling him to access all the apartments. When Spaulding finds the secret doors, he’s arrested for murdering actress Daisy Luton.

Spaulding flees via one of the passageways, where he finds and captures Roldo (the real murderer), Roldo’s first wife Nettie Kelly, and Henry Kent. Nettie confesses what really happened, and Clara is granted a divorce so she can marry her fiancé. Spaulding also marries Barbara.

Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

Horrifying history in wax comes to life

Premièring 6 October 1924 in Vienna and 13 November 1924 in Berlin, anthology film Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) was director Paul Leni’s final feature film in his native Germany (though he continued working as an art director there till 1926). His directing career began anew in Hollywood with The Cat and the Canary.

A nameless poet (William Dieterle) responds to an ad seeking an imaginative publicity writer for a waxworks exhibit. The proprietor (John Gottowt), who works with his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), asks the poet if he can write startling stories about three figures—Caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid, Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan Grozniy, whose Russian epithet does NOT mean “Terrible”), and Spring-Heeled Jack (a terrifying figure in Victorian folklore).

The poet writes himself into al-Rashid’s story as pie-baker Assad, and Eva becomes his wife Maimune. Trouble starts when a blanket of smoke from the pie oven causes al-Rashid (Emil Jannings) to lose a game of chess.

The Grand Vizier is dispatched to find the guilty party and kill him, but loses sight of his mission when he sees the beautiful Maimune. Upon his return to the palace, the Grand Vizier suggests al-Rashid take her for himself.

That night, al-Rashid mingles among his subjects incognito, in search of this great beauty. Outside the house, al-Rashid overhears an argument between the couple, culminating in Assad’s promise to prove his manhood by stealing al-Rashid’s wishing ring before dawn.

While Assad is away on this foolish, dangerous mission, al-Rashid enters the house and makes sure the door locks behind him. Maimune is terrified to see this intruder, even after he tells her he’s the Caliph.

Al-Rashid returns to the palace after putting the moves on Maimune, and is in a deep sleep when Assad slips into his bedroom and cuts off his arm. As we learnt in the opening segment, al-Rashid’s wax figure is missing an arm, and the poet wants to write a story explaining how that came to be.

But, as so often happens in horror and fantasy, not everything is always as it seems to be.

The poet then begins writing a story about Tsar Ivan IV (Conrad Veidt) stealing into the Kreml with his astrologer to gloat over his poisoned victims’ deaths. He particularly enjoys watching the last sand in the hourglass run out for each new victim.

Ivan’s astrologer warns him the poison-maker might write his name on the next hourglass. Given how increasingly paranoid Ivan was during the latter portion of his reign, one can predict his reaction!

The poison-maker has pity on one of the victims, and instead does exactly as the astrologer predicted.

Next day, a nobleman visits to remind Ivan he promised to attend his (the nobleman’s) daughter’s wedding. Ever-paranoid, Ivan changes places with the nobleman and arrives at the wedding as the driver.

Far from being a happy, joyful occasion, this wedding turns into a nonstop parade of horrors, esp. for the couple (Dieterle and Belajeff). One of the accurate translations of Ivan’s epithet, Grozniy, is Dreadsome, and he indeed lives up to it here.

The poet falls asleep while writing the final story (by far the shortest) about Spring-Heeled Jack (Werner Krauss), and dreams his wax figure comes to life to stalk him and Eva through the fairgrounds. Just as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, our sense of reality is put to the test.

A fourth story was in the original script, about Rinaldo Rinaldini (to be played by Dieterle). Though this story was cut for budgetary reasons, Rinaldi still appears with the other wax figures. Rinaldini is an elegant robber captain in Christian August Vulpius’s 1797 novel of the same name.