PART I: OVERTURE
In his public life, my Grandfather, Carmine (father to my father) was a jack of all trades. He was proficient in carpentry (a skill taught to him in his early teens by his future father-in-law), plumbing, and running a small farm in the yard of the house he grew up in (mainly chickens, ducks, a few hogs and a milking cow). He married my Grandmother at a very early age (she was thirteen to his nineteen) and they immigrated to America , from Italy , in 1901… Al Smith was the very popular Governor of New York from the years 1918 to 1928. On that final year he ran, unsuccessfully, for the Presidency and was bested by Herbert Hoover. In lieu of his loss and knowing of his want to go back to some kind of work, the heads of a new company, Empire State Inc., saw fit, as a publicity stunt, to make the most popular man in New York the President of their company and to overlook the building of what would become THE definitive landmark of Manhattan Island.
Carmine had worked for Governor Smith for several years, keeping the repairs and up-keep of Tammany Hall (where Governor Smith kept his offices in Manhattan) and the reliance’s that Smith had placed upon my Grandfather during his employment were growing greater and greater with each passing day (sometimes he even chauffeured, as he did the day the Governor, his wife and two grandkids were to meet motored over to the Budweiser wagons the day after prohibition was declared over and the public celebration of its repeal could commence on 34th street). Smith trusted my Grandfather and Carmine trusted Smith. According to my Grandmother’s stories of her husband; they knew they were going to “take a ride on easy street” the day the former Governor, a man my Grandfather deemed his friend, named Carmine his head superintendent of the Empire State Building. Almost immediately, money started to flow bigger on the way to my Grandfather’s pocket. Savings were made and, by 1954, my Grandparents had not only weathered the wrath of the Great Depression and the onslaught and conclusion of WWII without much muss to the head, but put away enough to never truly worry about bills and the want for anything. They weren’t necessarily rich, but well-off to say the very least and, in that year, they bought the family house, a Brownstone. My Grandfather retired from his work with The Empire State company in the spring of 1968 (Smith had died of heartbreak and heart failure years earlier in 1944 at age 70), a little more than a year after my birth.
In his private life, Carmine was a quiet man, good with work around the house (he put the new roof on the house on Shaler Avenue-Fairview N.J. -by himself) and an aficionado of fine cigars (I remember him always with that classic Cuban rope perched in the right corner of his mouth). He was a tinkerer, always finding something around the yard to work on or fix and, come nightfall, was obsessed with popular television programming (60 MINUTES was a favorite, THE PRICE IS RIGHT made him laugh) and his love was for cameras and photographic equipment. He was my Grandmother’s constant companion at the local movie theater a town away, and he drove us every other night, in that big white Cadillac, to the PARK LANE, to see magic and so my Grandmother could collect another dish (yes, they did do that at movie theaters. You also had a cartoon before the feature-usually Woody Woodpecker or Bugs Bunny).
In 1970, Carmine bought a Super 8 movie camera and projector. He set up a dark room in the cellar, next to the room with the wine presses (he made his own wine-could knock out an unseasoned veteran of the stuff with the first glass), and in his spare time, he developed a series of films of myself and my kid brother (David) waving at everything. We waved hello, we waved good-bye. Waving at Yankee stadium, waving on rides at Disney World. My Aunt Millie (Miss Beehive ,1962), my Grandmother’s younger sister, complained all the time that the constant showing of these torturous films at holiday gatherings and Sunday dinners were making her hate coming over to visit. It was because of his Sister-in-law’s complaints, never-ending, along with my begging to see “movie-movies” that sparked my Grandfather to seek out something new.
Back in the day, in the absence of VCR’s and Cable television stations, the only way to see a real movie at home was on a reel-to-reel projector. Depending on the size of the film the projector you had took, you were offered in department store photographic equipment sections a small selection of movies to purchase. Usually the selection was made up of cartoon shorts (we had heap of episodes from THE FLINTSTONES) and short comedy films (SONS OF THE DESERT with Laurel and Hardy was one of my favorites and my deep appreciation for the THREE STOOGES began by being projected onto a white bed sheet in the den of my home) and all of them were sans sound as Super 8 camera’s and projectors were the cheaper grade of home photography/projection equipment and didn’t have a speaker. However, and I’ll never forget the day, my Grandfather came home on a Monday night one summer with a bag of reels in a brown paper sack and told me over dinner that he was going to frighten me to my bones after dessert.
“YOU’RE GOING TO SCREAMMMMMMMMM!” he bellowed at me as he leaned towards me, glimmering toothy smile and cigar in tow.
His pleasure at my surprize and wide eyes made me tremble a little.
What was on those reels????
Intrigued by all of this, I sped through my homework and the typical Monday night supper of chicken with escarole and white beans (it was called a “poor-man’s” feast in Italian) and took my desert (usually the Ricotta pie topped with crushed Pineapple) into the den and watched my Grandfather, as he always did, set up our little private theater. On “movie” night I was always excited and the ritual was part of the fascination. First, the projector was positioned on the desk on the far side of the room with a telephone book under it to prop it up high enough so the picture wouldn’t shine on the statue of Saint Anthony that my Grandmother regularly crossed herself in front of every time she passed by it (her Rosary beads were permanently wrapped around her left hand in the event of a holy emergency). The famous white bed sheet was hung with clothes-pins adhering it to the frame of a huge Italian mural (years later, it was told to me by a person who bought it in a garage sale from me that the artist was French) of Rome’s burning on the opposite side of the room. Carmine, giggling manically, would announce how many minutes it would be before the show started to coax my Grandmother into washing the dishes and Suran-wrapping the left-overs faster (she would curse in Italian over this, “Fonghul” and “Facheem” the worst words of all; I had my mouth washed out with a bar of Irish Spring many a time because of them) and I took my place on the corner of the plastic covered sofa (she was saving the sofa and love seats for “special” company before the plastic could come off. Guess what? The company never came) just in front of the desk (in the summer you peeled yourself off the plastic as my Grandmother was afraid of air-conditioning).
Once the old lady had shuffled into the den, taking her seat on the recliner (that was free of plastic) next to the sofa, my Grandfather would pull down the shades, snap off the lights, gather me up tight against him, light the cigar and flick on the projector. In the absence of sound he would narrate and, this particular time, his voice drew soft as a whisper and as precise as auctioneer.
In that room of flickering images against the sheet and clicking sound that mingled with my Grandfather’s voice, a frightening and fantastical masterpiece unfolded before my very eyes. I remember the words my Carmine spoke accentuating the key moments. “He’s coming down the hall… Aghhhh!!!!” or “He’s coming to get you too!!!! He’s hungry for some CHIIIIIIIIILLLLLLDRENNNNNNNNN!!!!” I quivered, once leaping into the lap of Grandma as she laughed with her hoarse voice and her wheezing afterwards, her scent the combination of moth-balls, Chanel No. 5 and Ivory Soap.
The viewing that night in the mid-1970’s, and in that way only my grandfather could present it, has never left me, and me shaking, for all time.
PART II: FIRST MOVEMENT
The thing about F.W. Murnau’s silent classic is that, even after almost 100 years since its creation, it doesn’t feel a bit weathered or of it’s time. It’s freshness and ability to both entertain and frighten come from the sustained execution of fantasy. It’s a film that is timeless the way the fairy-tales of the Brother’s Grimm are timeless, they don’t really feel like a specific place and time but, rather, like stories spun with the ever encompassing “Once Upon A Time” stamped to the starting point.
In its construction, it’s a film that sets standards and tones in frightening imagery that would not really be refined or tackled for almost a decade after its initial presentation (with Todd Browning’s interpretation of DRACULA). Its reputation as a ground-breaker in the art of film-making is unchallenged. As a standard, it’s been imitated and lampooned in some form, some good some bad, almost every decade since 1922. You can always tell the greatness of a film when little pieces of it show up here and there.
So, what sets this film apart from every other horror film since it?
I mean, it IS an interpretation, an adaptation of sorts, of DRACULA?
And, there have been many other films since 1922 that have tackled the source…
NOSFERATU works so much better than any other version of the classic tale because its director had an affinity for allowing his imagination to run hog-wild. Murnau, one of the titans of cinema, was just in love with the things he could do with the camera. From playing with shadow, he sets the standard of lighting and mood derived from lighting. In a recent viewing of the film I was struck by how well Murnau and his DP’s (Wagner and Kramph) wrap the image of Orlock/Dracula in the shadows for a slow reveal. It’s almost as if the shadows surrounding Max Schreck (who plays the famed Count) have a mind of their own and conceal their master from the forces seeking to destroy him. The cranked and pullied board that Albin Grau devised to send Orlock straight up from his coffin bed, in tandem with the plays on shadow, is not only a nifty stroke of genius by the film-maker and crew but so seamless as to make you think that forces not of this earth are at hand. Simply, the invention of the people making this film were using every trick they could think of before the hand of Murnau cranked the lever of that silent movie camera. I often wonder what kind of excitement went coursing up Murnau’s spine when he made this film? Did he know, I’m sure he did, just what he had in front of him? These were artists of a high order lending their creativity from the stage to a fledgling medium that would only be great if their hands should touch it and give it the necessary push it needed out the door.
We all know the plot and it’s as timeless as the film itself. It’s the interpretation, on visual terms, that Murnau and company unfold in front of us that is the trick to challenge history. At no time during the running of the film do you ever think you are watching a movie but taking part in a dream/nightmare you or someone you know may be having. Everything, from the movements of the characters, to the over-exaggerated back grounds must lead your eyes towards the main player, Schreck, and it must do so even when he’s not on-screen. Part of Stoker’s brilliance in the writing of DRACULA was that the presence of the Count should be felt in every passage as if he lingers, hungrily, over you like a spectre. Here, in film, the essence of Orlock/Dracula is felt everywhere. The same shadows that engulf the Count in his castle are seen in cross-cut moments taking place hundreds of miles away as Ellen/Mina wakes from a dream of her beloved Hutter/Harker in peril. It’s all intentional and yet it feels coincidental. It comes as no surprise that when you look up Murnau in the vast compendiums written about his work that you understand his metaphorical hand on the stage presentations he oversaw were replete with such visual ironies. He was in love with creating paintings (he was a fine artist of paintings and drawings-he actually story-boarded every scene you see in NOSFERATU) that came to life. In this case, though, the subject is anything but beautiful.
The casting of Max Schreck as Orlock/Dracula, is a stroke of fated genius on the behalf of Murnau and producer Albin Grau. Hardly known at the time and barely remembered for anything other than this film, the almost anorexic and bolemic frame of the actor is a sore sight for eyes. Skinny, bald and ugly as ugly had a definition, Schreck is aided in performance by the brilliance of Albin Grau’s stunning costuming and make-up. Packed into a tight black leather and satin suit that looks like the cross between an S+M dominatrix and an 18th century undertakers garb, the effect of the gaunt, pale bloodsucker is unnerving. Add to that two front fang-like incisors and what you have in Schrecks appearance is a plaque spreading rat. NOSFERATU, the word, derives from “plaque bringer” or “bringer of the plaque” and with Schrecks almost floating-like movements sends the description of automatons rodent looking to strike a poisoned bite at you through the screen. His eyes never blink through the entire course of the film (something Anthony Hopkins recalled and took for his performance in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) and there is no hint of chic or suave demeanor that made Bela Lugosi’s count so romantic. Here, the performance is jolting and the physical presence absolutely revolting. Schrecks Count could not only be the creepiest in physical design, but the ugliest in films long history. Fact is, just looking at him churns the stomach. His long fingernails are representative to claws and the illusion of non-human is complete. This Dracula is far more frightening and realistic than even Stoker could conjure and, whereas, the charms of the written Dracula (as well as the interpretations of the character by Lugosi, Carradine and Oldman) are used for easy entrance to the rooms of entranced victims, here the character just lingers for the right moment to strike like a rabid animal made insane by fever. In the moment Hutter cuts himself with the bread knife, it’s a full lunge across the table by Orlock to feed on the wound that is one of the most shocking and jolting moments in the film. Ravenous for blood, Schreck makes the character move as if he was acting on the purest animal instinct. It’s a performance that screams for inclusion in a time capsule for all to see and, easily, one of the five or ten greatest performances in both horror and silent film history.
Frankly, there is just nothing about this film to fault, as perfect a movie that has ever been made by a genius director and crew. That the film is silent only attests to the brilliance of Murnau as a story-teller of visual terms. Each scene plays out in an obvious pageant. I defy anyone to look at this film and pay no attention to the dialogue cards and tell me that they don’t know what’s going on. That’s the point, though. This is a movie based on the rawest actions and emotions. It plays up on the natural fears we all have of getting lost, the dark, the unknown and nature and it’s precisely nature that turns the horror on full throttle.
I can think of no more frightening moment in the film as the sequence on the DEMITER as it journeys across the sea in a deadly flight towards the town of Wisborg. Through the cross editing of the boat defying the choppy waters to Orlocks slow ascendency to the upper deck as he feeds his way through every sailor on board, it’s as if nature shows no mercy in its design and lays waste all that travel against its path. Murnau, like Stoker, envision this sequence silently as the words of its description in the book take on a visual life in the film. The slow creeping of Schrecks character as he moves towards the horrified captain is one of surreal beauty, like the trance of a fairy over a dashing prince, that turns deadly the moment his outstretched arm makes contact with his victim’s throat. The deliberate timing was measured by Murnau with a metronome to keep the rhythm of the choreography like a death dance that slowly sails towards an unexpecting society. It’s this intentional rhythm, like that in symphonic music, that not only guides the characters movement in the film but caused Murnau to subtitle the film “A Symphony of Horrors”. The musical quality of the film is unmistakable. Dread, as personified by Murnau in visual sequences, is given the perfect definition in a film and played out like a slow movement, the Adagio, of a fine classic symphony. It’s nightmarish quality lingers in the minds of the viewer for years after seeing it, like a tune you just cannot stop humming.
PART III: SCHERZO
Imagine yourself sitting around a blazing campfire with several of your best friends. It’s night and images from NOSFERATU are flickering in the flame of the fire. Like a ghost story passed down from one generation of campgoers to another, a small story grows and grows like a snowball rolling down a frosty hill. The ball grows bigger with every spin. Campfire tales grow more elaborate with every telling. In the case of NOSFERATU, the story of its whirlwind creation has achieved a sort of mystical legendary status.
The legends of NOSFERATU’s creation started almost immediately after the finishing of the film. Most of the tales can be dismissed as the evidence of reality can be seen in other movies starring the main players of Murnau’s classic. However, legend can add to a story and heighten its brilliance if applied in the right way.
Knowing what we know today, the figure of the elusive Max Schreck is known to have gone on to make other films before his retirement many years after the filming of NOSFERATU. Sadly, the performer never lived down the role, and he is forever remembered for this part and, really, nothing more. Some would lament over his career never taking flight, but how many can lay claim to giving the performance of a lifetime in a film that’s influence is still felt almost a century after its making? It’s almost like Jeremy Irons voicing the villain in Disney’s THE LION KING, after winning his Oscar three years before, knowing that the animated film will be a timeless classic that will carry his legacy for eternity whereas NOBODY will remember his turn in REVERSAL OF FORTUNE.
Schreck’s presence in this film is far from just a performance. His turn as the ultimate vampire is so shockingly effective that, over the years, many folk-tales have been told of he and Murnau and the secret “deal” they made to procure Schreck’s work in front of the camera. It’s a legend and legends are the stuff of dreams/nightmares. The reality is that Max Schreck was a supreme method actor who fit the physical requirements that Murnau wanted for the character of Orlock. Those are the facts. The legend is something entirely different…
Supposedly, Murnau was vacationing in Wismar, home of his lover, producer Albin Grau, when they came across Max Schreck in a pub one night. When telling the barkeep that they were thinking of making a Vampire film, the kindly innkeeper referred them to the gaunt man sitting alone in a corner sipping red wine. The legend goes, that in a secret conversation between Murnau and Max Schreck, Schreck confided to the director that he was indeed a vampire. Several hours later, rejoining a jealous Grau at the bar, Murnau told his lover that he had met the man who would play his Count. He went on to tell Grau that the actor would never perform in daylight, would only appear in full make-up and costume and would keep to himself when the cameras were not rolling. This was all explained as the machinations of a great actor so totally posessed by his role.
Now, according to the version I heard of this story (as related to me by a film professor in a course I took in Tenafly High School, one Richard Stetsor) that accompanied a grainy print of the film, the deal that was struck by the “actor” and Murnau was simple: Schreck will play the part, no money would be exchanged for work, and upon the completion of the film the actress playing Ellen, Miss Greta Schroder, would be handed over to Schreck for cannibalistic consumption. The story further goes on to allude to Murnau being seen night after night leaving his shared bed with Grau, exiting the Inn that they and the crew were guests of during the filming, and proceeding to the cellar where Schreck was rooming. On each night, Grau supposedly swore that, he watched Murnau carry a cloaked box to the cellar and returned empty-handed.
What was in the boxes?
Director E. Elias Merhige and writer Steven A. Katz summize in their 2000 film SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE, that the boxes contained rats. According to their film, which treats the legendary stories as fact, Murnau stole away to the cellar each night to read script pages to Schreck and to allow his vampire to feed. In the film, as well as in the stories passed down for almost a century, the final day of shooting saw something that Murnau had not bargained for. Tired of waiting for his payment, Schreck demanded that Greta be handed over to him for feeding. Murnau, frantic to get his final shot completed before daylight, drugged Schroder before the camera rolled and called for take after take so his Vampire could actually feed in front of the camera. As the final take finished, and as he had scripted the scene on his own, Murnau forced Schreck to forget the time and exposed the vampire to sunlight. In a rage of accusations, Schreck jumped up from the bed he was kneeling in front of, turned to Murnau screaming he had been betrayed for his favors, and promptly disintegrated in front of a rolling camera.
Did Murnau actually catch a real Vampire on film?
Technology that we know of at the time would make it exceedingly difficult to make a man disappear on film like that. Professionals say that Murnau was such a genius with cameras that he painstakingly forced a version of stop motion animation to create the effect.
So, the answer is probably not. However, it’s a legend that should be true, if only to allow a viewer to believe that real magic does exist in the world.
That a legend like this even exists, though, is an even greater testament to Murnau and the horrific power of his film. Wordless, and in complete visual passage, NOSFERATU allows us to leave disbelief at the door of the theatre and to look upon true magic. Its magic that comes to us in the simplest, but most complex imagery of its time.
And for all time…
NOSFERATU, the film, like the legend it evoked, is a campfire fright that shakes you to your bones so hard, the feeling never leaves you.
How I long for those days of plastic covered furniture, the white bedsheet on the wall, and my Grandfather’s distinctive voice, lowered to a fine whisper…
by Dennis Polifroni