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Anyone who wants to learn more about silent film music will enjoy this. Chandler Bennett recorded this interview with Stephen Horne for KALX Berkeley 90.7FM, the student radio station at Berkeley, University of California earlier this year. It was recorded for the KALX show Film Close-ups – if you like what you hear, bookmark the site as it streams the station’s output online.
In the interview, Chandler asks Stephen about how he started out playing for silent films, and Stephen reveals that The Passion of Joan of Arc was the intimidating first film he ever accompanied. They also discuss the differences between composition and improvisation, and in more detail, the music that Stephen has played and written for Stella Dallas, The Manxman, Prix de Beauté and The First Born. Thanks to Chandler and Stephen for allowing me to post this fascinating conversation here on Silent London.
Fresh from a theatrical release and a flurry of Halloween shows, Nosferatu springs into life on Blu-Ray, courtesy of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label. This new release is an update of the label’s previous DVD, but features the Symphony of Horror in gleaming 1080p glory, with a handful of new features as a bonus prize.
This is a precious object then, a totemic silent film in beautiful packaging and supported by more supporting material in the form of articles, audio commentaries, interviews and documentary footage than you could possibly expect. Apparently, there has been more work done to improve on the 2007 restoration – if you’ve seen this in the cinema already you know how pristine the prince of darkness looks here. And that is so important. Nosferatu is far more than shadows. Arguably, rewatching Nosferatu on Blu-Ray at home, rather than at an amped-up and spooky live show, you enjoy its gorgeousness rather than the horror thrills: those painterly landscapes in their pastel tints. There’s nothing like the black-white-red-purple palette of modern gothic horror here – which keeps the film fresh but always uncanny. The music helps, too. The score from Nosferatu’s first run plays up the prettiness and romance – until it can’t hold out any longer.
Do we need to recap? I’ll do this at high speed, like Orlok’s spectral carriage dashing through an ethereal white forest. Nosferatu is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in all but name, with the action transferred to Germany. Max Shreck is the snuggle-toothed vampire Orlok, the young and preternaturally talented FW Murnau sits in the director’s chair. The movie was produced and designed by Albin Grau, an artist with a keen interest in the occult. And it’s brilliant: both beautiful and terrifying. A horrific spooky story, with eerie contemporary import. Remember that Europe has just come out the other side of a world war and a brutal flu epidemic, then look again at the devastation wreaked by Orlok here.
In fact, even if you’ve never seen a second of Nosferatu, you’ll know its most famous shot: Orlok’s hunched shadow stretching up the wall as he climbs the stairs. That shot has became a visual shorthand for horror, for imminent danger. It’s remarkable, by contrast with all the films that have appropriated the stair shot, that Murnau’s Nosferatu avoids any such shortcuts: turning leafy landscapes into places of horror, playing violence as romance, and romance as violence. Nonagenarian special effects such as Orlok packing himself into his coffin, and later lurching out of it, still feel vibrant. Perhaps that’s partly because this is a relatively decorous scary movie, with just a few drops of blood standing in for Orlok’s grotesque appetite. Murnau drenches Orlok’s victims in creeping shadows, rather than cascading gore. You’ll jump like a child at the sight of a rat, believe me.
But even if you remember those shocks from a long-ago screening, I would urge you to acquaint yourself much more closely with this poetic, audacious film. There’s far more here than a textbook paragraph on Expressionism can brief you on. Each repeat viewing brings something new to the fore, and that’s where the MoC treatment excels. Let me see, this disc contains two audio commentaries (one by R Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens from 2007, and another by David Kalat, who is so charming and impressively knowledgable that we’ll let him off for describing Stoker as an Englishman), two interviews (an previously seen chat with Abel Ferrara, and a new one with BFI Film Classic author Kevin Jackson). There’s a German language doc, which includes lots of location footage, and a booklet of articles and gorgeous images. The new commentary and interview are particularly sharp on unpacking myths around Nosferatu, from the etymological origin of the name to Grau’s spiritualist beliefs.
A “monumental film” as epic as the most far-fetched fantasy saga, but firmly grounded in the streets of Weimar Berlin, this first instalment of Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse trilogy is, simply put, a whole lot of movie for your money. A supernatural tale intertwined with social commentary, a crime film on a majestic scale, Dr Mabuse, der Spieler represents four and a half hours of contradiction and excess. It’s brilliant.
First, acquaint yourself with the structure: this is the first film in the trilogy, but it’s two films, released a month apart. The first film is called The Great Gambler: an Image of the Age, the second, Inferno: a Game for the People of Our Age. Each has six acts and runs for around two hours. It’s a tale of rise and fall, at heart, but a messy business at best. Together the two films form a complete story, but the second part of the trilogy, Das Testament des Dr Mabuse, would appear in 1933 and the third, Die 1000 Augen des Dr Mabuse, in 1967. The source for the first two films at least was the serialised Mabuse novels of author Norbert Jacques. This is pulp mystery fiction with a touch of class; Lang takes a few steps in the direction of his Hollywood film noir future with these slick stories of criminal twists, unexpected turns and moral compromises in a bleak urban setting.
Those subtitles for the two individual films should give you an inkling that this was intended to be, and was received as, a film that documented its own bewildering era. The cracks in the fractured, dysfunctional Berlin society where Mabuse and his seedy accomplices dwell are the symptoms of the national postwar crisis. That Mabuse is a charismatic, malevolent leader who leads his victims to commit terrible acts, even to destroy themselves, bodes ill for the future. The pace of the plot, the melting certainties and doubtful identities, speak to the fears of those baffled by the mechanisation of the age. This is a film driven by speeding trains, racing cars, guns and screaming mobs: modern phenomena as frightening to many as Mabuse’s mass hallucinations.
Like the film itself, Dr Mabuse is a man of many disguises. Publicly a psychoanalyst, he is privately a gambler at the card table, a hypnotist who transforms people into pawns, a bingeing alcoholic and an arch-criminal with a network of underling felons reaching across the continent. That “Spieler” subtitle translates variously as actor, player and puppeteer. Played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Mabuse enthrals the audience. His deeds are evil, but there is endless fascination in watching him at work: the casual arrogance of a conman who sends memoranda to his criminal colleagues on banknotes, of a villain who fails to collect a towering gambling debt, because his eyes are on a grander, bloodier prize, of a boozer who condemns his assistant’s drug use.
Mabuse’s nemesis is a dogged man of the law, the state prosecutor on the trail of a gang of card cheats who stumbles upon by chance on a more sinister criminal organisation. Bernhard Goetzke plays Inspector Von Wenk as a slightly desperate individual, a Weimar gumshoe who throws himself recklessly into the hunt for Mabuse – in one stunning setpiece, he faces the villain down over the card table, and manages to resists the full force of the doctor’s hypnotic power. Von Wenk goes solely by his surname in the source novel, but Fritz Lang honours him with the same first name as the novel’s author, Norbert Jacques. It’s a hint, perhaps that the law will eventually reign supreme in the anarchic, shifting world of Dr Mabuse. Hold on tight for an all-guns-blazing finale.
There are women, of course. Norwegian star Aud Egede-Nissen is the nightclub dancer Cara whose love for Mabuse rules her every move, from her seduction of his latest mark (played by the man who would become her husband, Paul Richter – Siegried in Die Nibelungen) to her ultimate downfall. Her performance, especially at the climax of the first movie, is particularly moving. And the little-known Gertrude Welcker dazzles as a bored countess seduced by the thrills of the Berlin nightclubs, and the underworld that controls them.
Dr Mabuse is a film to savour – if you know your silent Fritz Lang, you won’t be surprised that it’s a rare frame you don’t want to freeze, to relish the grandeur of the upper-class interiors, the moodily lit street scenes or the disconcerting multiple exposures in the mad scenes. On this new Blu-Ray presentation, as you ponder the beauty of it all, you’ll want to take a listen to the excellent audio commentary by David Kalat. Among many interesting insights into the movie, Kalat argues staunchly that Lang was no Expressionist. You may waver in your agreement with this thesis, but what’s for sure is that on the evidence of Mabuse Lang knew when to drape his sets in Caligari-esque chiaroscuro lighting, and when to leave well alone. The abstract Expressionist artworks that transform the Count’s mansion into a palace are refigured as a gothic nightmare when he loses his sense. The contrast between the two cinematographic treatments of the jail cell setting here is heartbreaking: the crisscrossing, swerving bars of darkness almost seem a comfort when we return to the same scene in crisp, unforgiving sunlight.
It’s a rich text for sure, and Kalat drops more than a few clues in his commentary as to how you may want to view Mabuse from a 21st-century perspective. It’s a game of chase-the-parallel. Does Herr Doktor equate to a gangster, a terrorist, a capitalist or a banker? The devil perhaps, is not in the detail, but in Lang’s expertly drawn grand scheme. This is a story of the very rich and the very poor, and a man who found a way to exploit both groups. From his blind counterfeiters toiling in a slum workshops, to the society chumps he cheats at cards, Mabuse is bleeding everyone dry. The really terrifying idea is not that villains exist, after all, but that the circumstances exist in which they can thrive.
Dr Mabuse, der Spieler is released by Masters of Cinema on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on 28 October 2013. The two-disc set features a sparkling modern score by Aljoscha Zimmermann played by a small ensemble, three featurettes, audio commentary and a booklet of images and text from the archive. This is a Blu-Ray transfer of an existing 2K restoration. Order the Blu-Ray from Movie Mail.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand
In 1925, Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence, won a plagiarism case against film producer Albin Grau over the latter’s 1922 chiller, Nosferatu. To be frank, Grau didn’t have a leg to stand on – he had applied for a licence to film Dracula, been refused by Florence and gone ahead with filming anyway, changing a few character names. This hardly distanced his film from Stoker’s Dracula, whose plot he had lifted lock, stock and barrel for Nosferatu and Florence successfully sued to get his company closed down and every copy of the film destroyed. Thanks to one vital copy, lodged at the time in the US where Stoker’s novel was already out of copyright, we still have the movie and every print now available descends from that one saved positive.
But I’m beginning to think that a skilful lawyer could actually have argued Florence down. Over a lifetime of playing this masterpiece I have noticed that in two vital areas scriptwriter Henrik Galeen and director FW Murnau actually created a new monster that Stoker would barely have recognised – firstly Van Helsing is a small-part character who is in no way responsible for Dracula’s destruction; secondly Nosferatu, minus Dracula’s brides, only has eyes for only one woman – Mina Harker. And it’s beauty that kills the beast.
I’ll go further – Nosferatu/Orlok is not Dracula, but director FW Murnau himself – with the result that today’s vampires flitting through Twilight and The Diaries are the children, not of Stoker’s night, but of Galeen and Murnau’s. And the music they make is very different.
The magnificent central section of the film depicts the vampire heading towards Whitby/Wisborg on board ship, disposing of the crew one by one like some hideous onboard buffet while Harker/Hutter plods back home across the mountains. Waiting on the beach is Hutter’s wife, the strange, other-worldly Mina, staring out to sea and during her sleepwalking catatonia delivering the devastating line: ‘My lover is coming!’
But which lover, the Count or the Husband? Let’s look at what has brought them all to this point – Orlok has seen Mina’s picture and is about to gorge himself on Hutter for the second night running. Mina, staying with friends who have rescued her from a perilous walltop sleepwalk, suddenly sits up in bed with a cry – across a single shot-cut (but miles of the Carpathian Mountains) Orlok freezes in mid-bite and turns to face the direction of her ‘voice’ – off camera right. In Witold, she slumps. In Transylvania, he moves away, his meal untouched. The next time we see him moving he is heading away from the castle and towards Mina, bearing his coffins. From then on it is as if she is already under his power – and, I would argue, he is under hers.
It is impossible to play Orlok’s arrival in Whitby/Wisborg as anything but heroic – the beautiful shot of the ship sailing itself to the dock; the scuttling figure with the coffin stopping outside Mina’s house for a brief smile and his first head-and-shoulder close-up in the movie; then the final river trip, standing proudly in a supernaturally powered rowboat, which deposits him at his new property where he enters by melting through the locked doors. No wonder Herzog chose Wagner for that sequence in his Nosferatu 70 years later. Orlok is a conqueror claiming his kingdom, from which he will stare balefully at Mina’s window while his rats destroy the city. And we are now, however unwillingly, rooting for him.
Murnau, by all accounts promiscuously gay and self-conscious about his appearance, obviously loved his vampire with the outsider’s love of a soulmate gifted with powers he can only dream of. Every flesh-and-blood male character in the film is weak or deluded; Hutter himself can only sit feebly by while Mina takes the strong course in dealing with both infection and infector. But as she makes up her mind we see Orlok imprisoned in his palace imploring her attention with a look that can only be described as heart-breaking. When she acquiesces, he comes to the feast like Don Juan triumphant, the shadow of his bony fingers enclosing, not her neck but her heart, which he squeezes as she writhes beneath him. Herzog would provide the perfect closure for their nuptials, Orlok looking up from her throat at the dawning light, only to have her draw his head gently back to her neck with the gentlest of arm-movements.
Audiences new to the film always laugh at the opening and the speeded-up actions, but it is a wonderful tonic to hear the silence descend as Murnau and his vampire exert their power. I have never been able to play triumph at the Nosferatu’s demise because we have been taught by Murnau to admire and pity him as well as fear him, and in the last thirty years Herzog, Coppola and Joss Whedon have all followed Murnau’s lead. Genius that he was, Murnau made the connection half a century before the rest of us did – we know Orlok because he is us.
Every silent film is an invitation to the musician to tell their version of the story and, yes, “Nosferatu, the Love Story” is a spin, one of many that could be applied to this great film. But here’s my point: treating it musically as a horrific love story opens vistas of new insight on this masterpiece that are vastly greater and more rewarding than the simple terrors of the night. And when the tension between horror, lust and desire is working, one can almost hear the new blood coursing through the vampire’s veins …
Nosferatu is now on theatrical release, from Eureka Entertainment, screening at the BFI Southbank and many other venues around the country. Eureka will release Nosferatu on DVD/Blu-Ray on 18 November 2013. Pre-order here
We’re all saddened by the idea of silent film heritage sites falling into decay and disrepair. So I thought you would like to know about this crowdfunding campaign to restore the historic Essanay Studios in Chicago. As if you don’t know, the Essanay Studio was a major player in the first years of the American movie industry. Stars associated with the studio in its infancy include Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, Ben Turpin, Francis X Bushman and, of course, Broncho Billy Anderson, who funded the company in 1907 with George Kirke Spoor.
The studio building is now a college, and is seeking help with funding for renovations, and to transform itself into an arts centre, with a studio, performance space and an area where people can come and learn some silent movie history.
Before there was Hollywood, there was Chicago. This initiative seeks to preserve and revitalize one of the world’s first and last remaining silent film studios and a unique piece of a great city’s history. The restoration and rebirth of the Essanay Film Studio Complex will provide an opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to learn and experience the magic and mystery of early film-making and Chicago’s unique role. It will also extend and expand the studio’s cultural legacy by providing a community space for the performing arts.
That’s all, folks. I don’t know about the other festival delegates, but I am utterly and completely scherben*. it has been a fantastic festival: eight days to wallow in the full diversity of what we call silent cinema. I have learned a lot, met some wonderful people and enjoyed many, many movies.
The final day began with rain, a sleepy trek to the Cinemazero and some really quite startling footage, completely unsuited to the tender hour. I am not talking about Felix the Cat, who entertained a select crowd with his adventures as a wildlife documentarian in Felix the Cat in Jungle Bungles (1928). I am talking about the new documentary feature by David Cairns and Paul Duane, Natan. This award-winning doc tells the truth, or attempts to, about Bernard Natan and his incredible life.Read more…