The concept of “Early Murnau” is a little bittersweet. The German director had such a short career that the films in this new collection from Masters of Cinema take us up to just six years before he died. And while his most famous film was made during the period (1921-25) covered by this box set, that work, Nosferatu, is not included. The set ends just one year before his hypnotic Faust was made, and two before his Hollywood masterpiece Sunrise.
This is technically middle Murnau, then, or “the Murnau you may have missed if you only knew Nosferatu and the surviving Hollywood work”. All the same, this is a gorgeous collection of distinctive, spectacular films, well worth adding to your shelf. All of the films in the set have been made available on DVD from Masters of Cinema previously, but here together, on Blu-ray, they represent a far better bargain.
The journey through Murnau’s lesser-sung German work begins in 1921 with Schloss Vogelöd, a country-house mystery rendered mysterious and dreamlike at the director’s touch, and climaxes with the bracing and inventive Molière adaptation Tartuffe (1925), which introduces an especially noxious virtue-signalling hypocrite and hangs him out to dry. In between we delve into the romantic and financial misery of a poetically minded clerk in Phantom (1922), and the related entanglements of an aristocrat in Die Finanzen de Grossherzogs (1924). Indisputably, the highlight of the collection is the low-key masterpiece Die Letzte Mann (1924) starring Emil Jannings as the hotel doorman whose life hits a downward spiral when he is demoted to a toilet attendant.
As the many extra features and essays included with the set attest, Murnau’s oeuvre is hugely varied, swinging from genre to genre and rarely settling in one place for long. Stylistically, though, he is mistakably himself at all times. You can see the walls of the city bend down to oppress the heroes of both Phantom and Die Letzte Mann, for example. And you may already have noticed that the films above share a set of preoccupations with money and social position, with impossible aspirations and with toxic pride.
Remind me which one that is? Oh come on. Nosferatu is a classic – FW Murnau’s free-floating Dracula adaptation is one of scariest films of all time, and one of the most beautiful too.
Is that the one with hunchbacked shadow lurching up the stairs? Bingo.
Surely it’s not still hanging around?Nosferatu is back baby, and now it’s on Blu-ray too, courtesy of a new release from the BFI.
Oh, Nosferatu on Blu-ray? I got that already. Really?
Well, no. I saw that Masters of Cinema brought it out two years ago but I hadn’t got around to buying it yet. Ah I thought so. Well you could buy this version instead.
I might. Both releases are Blu-ray updates of each label’s previous DVD release of the film.
I’m all about Blu-ray. What’s the difference between the two packages though? The extras are different, and the score. MoC used the original theatrical score, and the BFI has used a more modern, but also orchestral, score by James Bernard. And yes, both are available in stereo and 5.1.
The news certainly caught my attention. Masters of Cinema has upgraded its DVD release of Murnau’s Faust: a German Folktale (1926) to a shiny new dual-format edition. All the beauty of Faust, but in high-definition Blu-ray glory: temptation itself. The even better news is that this is a very beautiful disc indeed.
Faust has always been a feast for the eyes, from the cutting-edge 1920s special effects to the gorgeously, painterly compositions, and the Blu-ray transfer here more than does the film justice. Compared to the DVD, this is just far, far more filmic. There are rich blacks and sumptuous detail, making the most of crowd scenes and shadowy landscapes. On a biggish screen, you’ll notice a texture of soft grain, not sharp pixels. As was familiar practice in the 1920s, Murnau shot Faust with two cameras – one each for the domestic and export versions of the film. His favourite takes remained in the German print, and that is what has been restored here (the grandly gothic German intertitles remain, so you’ll have to turn the subtitles on). This is the best Faust you can get – screening this at home is a seriously impressive movie experience.
This is a guest post for Silent London by David Cairns, a film-maker and lecturer based in Edinburgh who writes the fantastic Shadowplay blog. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
It’s impossible to tot up a list of “the greatest” or even “my favourite” lost films, since they are by definition lost and impossible to assess, at least without using supernatural powers or outright lying. These are just 10 that produce in me a particularly sharp pang of longing.
1) The Drag Net(1928). Since Josef Von Sternberg’s Underworld reinvented the gangster movie as romantic tragedy, and still stands up as a rip-roaring urban fantasy comparable in its antisocial mayhem to a Grand Theft Auto game with love scenes, the fact that the second silent crime thriller he made, refining his take in the genre, is not known to survive anywhere, is heartbreaking.
Sternberg was particularly targeted by the vicissitudes of fate in his career. Weirdly, those of his films whose destruction was ordered, such asThe Blue Angel (by the Nazis), The Devil is a Woman (by Spain’s Guardia Civil) have survived, whereas The Case of Lena Smith exists only as a tantalising 10-minute fragment. A Woman of the Sea may have been destroyed on the orders of its producer, Charlie Chaplin, but a second print remains unaccounted for …
2) Similarly, while the British courts ordered FW Murnau’s Nosferatu destroyed for copyright infringement, the unauthorised adaptation of Draculasurvived, but nearly all his earlier movies are lost, including Der Januskopf(The Janus-Face, 1920), an unauthorised adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Why this matters: the star was Conrad Veidt (seen looking angst-ridden in a few grainy stills), the screenplay was by Caligari scribe Hans Janowitz, and Bela Lugosi had a smaller role. Plus, you know, it’s Murnau. Doing a horror film.
Several of Murnau’s German silents are completely lost or survive only in tiny pieces. 4 Devils, his last Hollywood film, is also MIA.
3) Another German in Hollywood, Ernst Lubitsch, suffered a major loss when The Patriot(1928) vanished from the earth. This is particularly appalling since the film won best screenplay (Hans Kraly) at the 1930 Academy Awards. Also, the star of the film is Emil Jannings. The movie is far enough removed from Lubitsch’s usual brand of movies that it might be hard to know exactly what we’re missing, but the trailer for this one surivives and the vast, expressionistic sets haunted by Lubitsch’s restless camera make this look like one of the most impressive films of the silent era. Sob.
4) The Divine Woman(1928) is, of course, Greta Garbo. Her director is fellow Swede Victor Sjostrom (or Seastrom) and her co-star is Lars Hanson. And there are nine minutes of this in existence to make you yearn for the rest all the more desperately. What we can see in the clip (which turned up in Russia after Glasnost) suggests a rather more boisterous Garbo than we’re used to seeing, throwing herself at Hanson and yanking him about by the hair in an affectionate but rather rough fashion. Another 71 minutes of that, please.
5) The Mountain Eagle(1926). Its own director thought this one was rubbish, but as he was Alfred Hitchcock I’d still like to see it. It was his second directorial effort. A recent restoration of his first, The Pleasure Garden, has revealed it to be a better film than we all thought. Who knows what a rediscovery of the followup might reveal?
I’ve just returned from the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo’ness, Falkirk. It’s a fantastic event – I really enjoyed myself and only wish I could stay longer. To give you a flavour of the weekend, if you missed out this time, here’s a mini-podcast and a selection of social media updates too. Surely there is no cooler hashtag for a #silentfilm event than #hippfest?
Hats off to Alison Strauss and her team and Falkirk Community Trust to – Hippfest is a triumph.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Paul Joyce, who blogs about silent and classic cinema at Ithankyouarthur.blogspot.co.uk. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
Cinematic dreams are a staple of the silent era more than any other, possibly because much of what was on screen had only previously been experienced in dreams for contemporary audiences. Now our dreams are founded on over a century of cinema and we’re so much harder to impress but … we can still dream on. Here’s a top ten of silent dreams with a couple of runners up as a bonus.
The Astronomer’s Dream (1898)
A madly inventive three minutes from George Méliès in which an old astronomer is bothered by a hungry moon as the object of his observation makes a rude appearance in order to eat his telescope.
Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)
A feast of special effects in Edwin S Porter’s cautionary tale on the matter of over-indulging in beer and cheese. Jack Brawn plays the titular fiend who suffers all manner of indignities once he staggers home to his bed, whereupon his sleep is interrupted by rarebit imps and his bed flies him high into the night sky … Proof that the whole cheese-and-dreams rumour is actually true.
In August Blom’s classic – the first Danish feature film – Olaf Fønss’ doctor dreams of walking through the sunken city of Atlantis with his dead friend, as the passenger ship he is on begins to sink. It’s either a premonition or recognition that his true feelings have been submerged … JG Ballard was obviously later inspired to write The Drowned World.
Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
After being accidentally overdosed with sleeping draught by careless servants, Mary Pickford’s character falls into a deep and dangerous sleep … As she hovers on the edge of oblivion the story runs parallel between the doctor trying to save her and her dreams in which those she knows are transformed in her Oz-like reverie. Sirector Maurice Tourneur excels as “the hopes of dreamland lure the little soul from the Shadows of Death to the Joys of Life”.
When the Clouds Roll By (1919)
Douglas Fairbanks is harassed by vengeful vegetables after being force-fed too many in an effort to drive him to suicide (yep, it’s a comedy). Directed by Victor Fleming, who later returned to dreams with Dorothy and that Wizard. Continue reading The top 10 silent film dream sequences→
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.
Take it from me, you need more Nosferatu in your life.
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 …
A short note to let you know that I am introducing a screening of Murnau’s heartbreakingly brilliant The Last Laugh (1924) as part of the Mimetic Festival on 16 July 2013. More to the point, the extremely talented Costas Fotopoulos will be accompanying the film live on piano – so don’t miss it.
The Mimetic Festival is a celebration of the power of mime across film, theatre, cabaret, comedy and film. This particular screening is presented by the lovely people at Around the Corner Cinema, who recently showed Sunrise in Winchmore Hill, north London. We chose this film for the festival because it doesn’t rely on intertitles to tell its story. Instead, the audience is swept along by Murnau’s floating camera movements and Emil Jannings’ fluid, physical performance in the lead role.
The Last Laugh is a mesmerising film, a work of expressionist genius, which applies the visual genius of Ufa’s greatest talents to the seemingly dour and mundane tale of a hotel doorman who loses his position, and his self-respect, when he is demoted to a toilet attendant. The result is unexpectedly breathtaking – and without giving anything away, you won’t have seen an ending like this before.
CA Lejeune, the legendary film critic of the Observer newspaper, had this to say about it:
Probably the least sensational and certainly the most important of Murnau’s films. It gave the camera a new dominion, a new freedom…It influenced the future of motion picture photography…all over the world, and without suggesting any revolution in method, without storming critical opinion as Caligari had done, it turned technical attention towards experiment, and stimulated…a new kind of camera-thinking with a definite narrative end.
The Last Laugh and The Projectionist screen at Enfield Grammar School Hall, EN2 on Tuesday 16 July, 2013. Doors open at 6.45pm and the film will begin at 7.30pm. There will be a licensed bar. Snacks, including Sardinian artisan antipasti boxes, will be on sale too. Tickets cost £6.50 or £5.50 for concessions. To read more, and to book tickets, click here.
The director of Nosferatu, Faust, The Last Laugh and Sunrise has an immaculate CV – but this, the final entry in his filmography, initially appears to be an oddity. In truth, it’s a masterpiece. FW Murnau’s cinema had been shaped in the creative hothouse of 1920s Berlin, and survived the transition to the commercially driven colossus of Hollywood beautifully, although his ego did not. Bruised by poor notices for the three films he had made in LA for Fox, Murnau took a leap into the unknown, embarking on a project unlike any other he had attempted. He sailed for Bora Bora with the documentary film-maker Robert Flaherty to shoot a colour movie, a part-talkie called Turia.
Following a script rewrite, money trouble and endless technical difficulties, Turia would become Tabu, a silent, black-and-white love story; Flaherty’s role would be downgraded to lab-bound assistant; and Murnau would plough his own money into the project until he had something he could sell to Paramount for distribution. The most shocking, and tragic, twist of all was that Murnau would not live to see its premiere. The director died in a car accident in March 1931, a week before Tabu’s first public screening.
Had Murnau lived, he would have seen his film, trimmed in often baffling ways by Paramount, fail to make back its costs at the box office, although the cinematographer Floyd Crosby would win the Oscar for this, his debut. In 1940, his mother sold the rights to Rowland and Samuel Brown, who rereleased it with further cuts and yet again failed to turn Tabu into a commercial success. It was not until the early 70s that a full nitrate print of the original film was discovered – and the process of restoration and appreciation began in earnest. Now we can watch Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, the full Tabu, and thanks to 21st-century technology, we can watch it at its sumptuous best.
Masters of Cinema has released Tabu previously on DVD – this is a beautiful Blu-Ray revamp of that pristine transfer. The sea spray sparkles and the chiaroscuro effects of those ominous shadows that are cast across paradise are given their full weight. It’s a seductively beautiful film; almost gratuitously, exotically gorgeous. In fact, I’d say the stills you see here don’t do it justice. Solidly expressionist lighting techniques transform a sun-drenched paradise into a locus of intangible terror, at the same time as the play of light on the luminous seas, on the young lovers’ beautiful bodies, entrances the eye. The film itself is a tempter, a Mephistopheles, and you’ll find it impossible to resist. The Hugo Reisenfeld score that Murnau spent his last pennies on is here too. It’s luscious, but on another occasion I’d be intrigued to see how a modern magician would accompany this film.
The plot concerns the stranglehold of fate, set cruelly against the joy of young love. We are far from the realm of documentary here – Tabu is every bit as artful as any of Murnau’s other films. Reri and Matahi live on a remote and unspoiled south sea island, and they fall suddenly, but utterly in love. The idyll is shattered when a messenger from another island, the sinister, hollow-faced Hitu, announces that Reri is “tabu”: she has been chosen to be a vestal virgin of sorts, a totem of chastity and purity – a symbolic tithe demanded from one island by the other. Reri must be wrenched from Matahi and their budding love affair is also “tabu”. The lovers escape, and wash up at a different kind of island, one that has been colonised, but Hitu, as eerie and relentless as Count Orlok, is on their trail …
That story, which folds folklore into tragedy, is told with the minimum of intertitles and the maximum of grace. Murnau’s unchained camera roams across ocean and sand but falls upon a painterly, elegant composition with each frame. Those title cards, as the invaluable commentary by R Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens makes plain, provide narration, and documentation, but not dialogue. Many silent films invite the hoary adjective “balletic”, but it is apt here: the vigour of the crowd scenes, the erotic, tragic interplay of the forlorn principals and that haunting villain. This voiceless melodrama, as exotic and strange as it may seem, will slide right under your skin.
Far from an oddity, this is a Murnau film to the core – there is enough joy, tragedy and self-sacrifice here to make you believe we’re back in Berlin. There’s even a dance scene that screams Sunrise; and those themes of paradise found and lost can’t help but recall Faust. Apparently Murnau, thoroughly disillusioned with Hollywood, planned to return to the South Sea Islands to make more films after Tabu – his 1930s career could have been truly fascinating.
So it’s worth buying Tabu for the film alone, but this is a typically generous Masters of CInema package. As well as the aforementioned commentary there is a short German-language documentary Tabu: the Cinematic Legacy, a short travelogue from 1940 that uses footage from Tabu, a handful of out-takes, and a weighty booklet featuring archive material and essays.
Tabu is released on Blu-Ray (£19.99) and DVD (£17.99) by Masters of Cinema on 24 June 2013. Available to pre-order now