Combustible Celluloid
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With: Max Schrek, Gustav von Wangenheim, Alexander Granach, Greta Schroeder
Written by: Henrik Galeen, based (without credit) on Bram Stoker's Dracula
Directed by: F.W. Murnau
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 93
Date: 03/04/1922

Nosferatu (1922)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Shadow of Murnau

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A small handful of movie fans caught a glimpse of a genius last winter in Shadow of the Vampire, which presented a fictional take on the silent vampire movie Nosferatu. Willem Dafoe walked away with an Oscar nomination as Max Schrek, who turns out to be a real vampire, but it was John Malkovich who portrayed the master filmmaker Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau.

Even after a hundred years of cinema, many film scholars still regard Murnau as one of the greatest film directors of all time, if not the greatest. The trouble is that he died 70 years ago and very few movie buffs remember him or know his films. His 1927 masterpiece Sunrise, made in Hollywood and winner of three Oscars, is currently out of print on home video and has never been released on laserdisc or DVD. As a result, it was unfairly left off the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the 100 greatest American films.

In addition, only about half of Murnau's 21 films have survived the rigors of time. Shot on silver nitrate, most silent films proved to be extremely flammable and many were destroyed and permanently lost. We're lucky that something as great as Sunrise survives, but it's unforgivable that distributors are too lazy or greedy to make it available on DVD.

The good news is that three other Murnau films have been newly released on DVD: The Last Laugh, Faust, and in some ways his most memorable work, Nosferatu.

Nosferatu (1922, Image Entertainment, $24.99) arrived in January of this year (in conjunction with Shadow of the Vampire) in a new "Special Edition" DVD, eclipsing the older 1998 version. This outstanding new version features more extras, an excellent new musical score as well as the older organ score, and a commentary track by Murnau expert Lokke Heiss.

Nosferatu was based on Bram Stoker's Dracula, but only unofficially, since Murnau was unable to attain the rights to the story from Stoker's widow. Even so, the film has enjoyed a large following over the years, but mostly due to the vampire subject matter rather than Murnau's brilliant artistry.

Murnau exerted expert control over every facet of his filmmaking. He was perhaps the first to understand the idea of "negative space," i.e., the space beyond the film frame, moving actors and objects in and out of the frame, reminding us that we can only see part of this particular world. He was compared to other German expressionist filmmakers at the time (such as Robert Wiene of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame), but he rebelled against this notion by using natural settings for Nosferatu instead of studio sets, framing his characters under archways or spidery tree branches to achieve his sinister effects.

The most astonishing scene in Nosferatu comes when Thomas Hutter (the Jonathan Harker character) rides in the stagecoach towards the castle with the vampire at the reins. Murnau wanted to express his entrance into a darker netherworld, so he filmed one shot of this journey in negative, the blacks and whites reversed. The creepy thing about this shot is that Nosferatu, dressed in black in the other scenes, still appears in black in this negative shot. It's as if he wields powers over Nature itself. Now, thanks to Shadow of the Vampire and the other new DVDs, Murnau's legacy lives on.

Two excellent editions of Nosferatu have been released on DVD. The Image Entertainment edition (2000) clocks in at 81 minutes and features two scores, one by the Silent Orchestra, and a simple organ score by Timothy Howard. The disc includes a photo gallery, and Lokke Heiss provides a commentary track. The Kino edition (2002), runs 93 minutes, though I believe it's only a matter of projection speed rather than extra footage. Kino's edition comes with two scores, one composed by Gerard Hourbette and Thierry Zaboitzeff and performed by Art Zoyd, and the other written by Donald Sosin with vocals by Joanna Seaton. The Kino disc comes with clips from six other Murnau films, a photo gallery and a novel/screenplay/film comparison. The Kino disc is the slightly better choice, but it's worth having both discs in order to experience the commentary track and the alternate scores on the Image disc.

In 2007, Kino released a new, two-disc Nosferatu set that further complicates things. This new set clearly contains the definitive digital transfer. The picture quality is absolutely superb -- more so than I could have ever hoped. And, like their equally superb new Battleship Potemkin set, this DVD comes with the original version, with German intertitles and English subtitles, or the intertitles translated into English. It carries over some extras from the 2002 disc, such as a clip gallery of Murnau's films, and it has new featurettes on the making and restoring of the film. But this new disc comes with only one score. It's the original score, actually composed by Hans Erdmann for the film, but it ignores the four other scores from the other two DVDs, and it also ignores the excellent commentary track from the Image disc. So, now completists will have to own all three discs. But, if I were simply going to sit down and watch the movie, there's no question that I would choose this new disc.

In 2013, Kino released a Blu-ray edition that's identical to the 2007 DVD in terms of extras, although the picture is now mastered in extraordinary high-def. Commentary tracks or no, this is the version I will be watching for the foreseeable future.

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