Nosferatu - Eine Symphonie des Grauens Review
Given the precarious nature of its early existence, surviving first litigation and attempts at extermination followed by a fall into partial obscurity and neglect, Nosferatu's post-WWII resurgence and still-burgeoning reputation as one of the key touchpoints of silent cinema - of the Weimar era in particular - and status as one of the foremost icons of the horror genre, is a remarkable testament to the enduring appeal of Dracula as a literary and cinematic behemoth that refuses to die.
That this new BFI edition of F.W. Murnau's 1922 film is the latest in a long line of restored and reappraised editions speaks to the ongoing preoccupation with the Dracula myth and directly to the esteem in which Nosferatu is held as one of the earliest and undoubtedly greatest of adaptations of Bram Stoker's source novel. Indeed, when compared to the ill-conceived staged reading of the novel (which Stoker enthusiastically advocated for purposes of protecting copyright) and Hamilton Deane's critically derided theatre production, it is ironic that Murnau's work, whilst far superior to other treatments of the novel, was the target for the opprobrium and ire of the Stoker estate.
The legal conflict that arose out of Prana-Film's decison to freely adapt from Stoker's novel represents one of a number of features of the film's production and the conditions of its early existence which make the backstory equally as fascinating as the end product itself. Emerging from the convulsive, chaotic and wildly experimental period in the post-war Weimar Republic, it is well documented that the seeds of the Nosferatu tale were primarily sown not in the horrors of the Great War (although it still casts a long shadow over this and other films of the period) but in the outbreak of Spanish flu in the immediate aftermath which it is claimed was responsible for more deaths than the conflict that preceded it.
Bearing this in mind it is not surprising that Stoker's Dracula, originating in a far-off mysterious land and migrating across the span of a continent to inflict pestilence and perdition on the innocent and unwitting, represented a fascinating apologue. This was certainly the case for Albin Grau, a German producer and designer, and committed occultist whose experiences in the war also suggest that the vampire legend in particular had a personal resonance that drew him closer to the material. As part of his infantry service Grau was billeted in Serbia where he was regaled with local peasant folklore, notably one account of a villager who having been buried without sacraments, was said to have risen from the grave as a vampire, his terrorising of the village only ceasing after the body was exhumed and staked.
Taking these influences and, according to some accounts, drawing on physical descriptions of the Serbian vampire replete with prominent, pointed front teeth, Grau let his imagination run wild producing many of the images that we instantly associate with the Murnau film. Whilst Murnau brought many of his own ideas and flourishes to the filmed production, as his detailed annotations of Henrik Galeen's screenplay attest, Grau's visualisation of the verminous Graf Orlok appears to have carried through largely intact. So impactful was the realisation of the Orlok character that Max Schreck, who portrayed him - due to coincidences around his name (schreck being German for 'terror') and his relatively low-key background as a character actor - was the subject of some mischievous speculation suggesting that he was himself a real-life vampire (memorably reimagined in E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire).
Despite receiving almost universally positive reviews in Germany upon its theatrical premiere, other factors looked set to confound Nosferatu post-release. Prana-Film had envisaged the film as one of a slate of productions tapping into Grau's obsession with the occult and the darker reaches of the expressionistic spectrum. However his lack of experience in film industry appears to have told as the publicity costs were reported to have overshot those incurred by the production itself and Grau's financial mismanagement drove Prana into financial penury and, ultimately, oblivion.
Even had Prana survived further strife lay on the horizon in the formidable shape of Florence Stoker, widow of Bram and irate representative of his estate. The great irony of Nosferatu is that whilst it had been lauded as an artistic triumph it could not save Prana from financial ruin and as a consequence it proved of little worth to Stoker's widow in her attempts to extract damages from Prana or, subsequently, the receivers for copyright infringment. The depth of Mrs Stoker's upset and indignation is apparent by her determination to destroy all extant prints of Nosferatu but here fate intervened and the proliferation of the undead far beyond German borders rendered these attempts futile.
Indeed despite Mrs Stoker's best efforts, and probably the greatest indignation of all - a classic example of life imitating art - a print of Murnau's film not only managed to make its way across continental Europe but was then screened at a London-based film society before promptly disappearing without trace. Safely out of reach of those that would mean it harm the rest, as they say, is history...
Nosferatu is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The BFI's treatment of the film does differ from the current standard bearer, the Eureka MoC edition. The age-old argument regarding the tinting of the film seems to have been put to bed in the last few years and whilst there are differences here in addition to the use of English rather than German intertitles, the standard of the presentation is comparable with the image stable and free of any signs of significant damage whilst retaining all the hallmarks of its age that fans of the film have come to know and love.
Two options are available on the disc: a 2.0 stereo PCM and 5.1 DTS-HD master audio; whilst my personal preference is for the former, both showcase James Bernard's score to great effect.
Christopher Frayling on Nosferatu (24:08) Christopher Frayling brings his considerable knowledge to bear on the background, production, personalities and themes of Nosferatu. Frayling is one of my favourite commentators on film and his contributions here are as engaging and informative as ever. A welcome inclusion.
Le Vampire (8:28)
A brief but entertaining documentary on vampirism and the South American vampire bat by Jean Painleve which directly references Murnau's Nosferatu. Painleve gives an unsympathetic account of the creature, which he is reported to have referred to as a 'brown pest' and into which he projected his deep hatred of the Nazis.
The Mistletoe Bough (8:20)
A fascinating archive item dating from 1904, billed as the oldest film version of a classic Christmas ghost story with a new score by Saint Etienne’s Pete Wiggs.
An image gallery (2:23) also features on the disc and an illustrated booklet with writing by David Kalat and Brian J. Robb is included as part of the package.
Far from the threats of extinction that plagued it subsequent to its initial theatrical release, Nosferatu's reputation continues to sustain and endure, and its themes remain resonant and relevant. The BFI have produced a fine presentation supplemented by an albeit small but fascinating selection of extra features which make it a worthy companion piece to the Eureka MoC edition.