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cast: Alfred Abel, Frieda Richard, Aud Egede Nissen, and Lyd de Putti
director: F.W. Murnau
120 minutes (PG) 1922
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Andrew Darlington
Nosferatu. Own up, that's the real reason this supposedly-lost antique
celluloid item has been digitalised, reconstructed, tastefully tinted, and is now being reviewed. Genre fans are nothing if not loyal. Clunky
turn-of-the-century fantasies, derided at their time of publication, are still in print, still being enjoyed, while the so-called 'literary' works
issued at the same time and ecstatically reviewed by serious critics in serious journals are now long-forgotten and languish unread. Same with
film... There may be drawbacks to genre, but it at least offers some kind of immortality.
Nosferatu (1922) was pirated from Bram Stoker's Dracula novel, re-branded into a less litigious Count Orlok, and despite being forced
off the screen by Stoker's vengeful widow; its exaggerated expressionist perspectives survive as an object of veneration by horror-devotees and
cine-addicts. A contemporary of Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst, Murnau was nominated "the greatest filmmaker the Germans have ever known," by
critic Lotte Eisner (in her The Haunted Screen) on the strength of such stylistic innovation. Phantom was filmed between it, and the
second of his two highly-rated silent masterpieces - The Last Laugh,
during years of crippling postwar Weimar hyper-inflation.
This DVD opens with the period-defining whirr of projector spools. There are, however, few fantasy-horror elements to this charming cine-play of
a vanished small-town Germany, the richly detailed street-scapes, the children playing beside the fountain, all of whom will by now have lived out
their lives, and be no more. The result is a movie that is essentially uncategorisable, intended for collectors, academics and obsessives. But
I guess I'm included in at least two of those terms.
The surviving copies were long-considered unshowable, but scrupulous continental scholars have restored the scattered fragments, adding plaintive
music and new inter-titles, and, as well as being mildly intriguing, the results throw new light on Murnau's other films. Based on a classic novel
by Gerhart Hauptmann, Alfred Abel (who appears as a conman in Murnau's later
Die Finanzen des Großherzogs ('the Archduke's finances'), as well as in Fritz Lang's stunning
Metropolis), plays the troubled 'Lorenz Lubota' whose wife suggests
he write down his memories as an act of atonement, a cathartic way of rendering his burden of guilt less agonizing. So he sits by a window where
the blossom blows, and begins writing the story of his former life, revealing himself to be an ex-convict... once this teaser has drawn you in,
it flashes back to poorer days.
The younger Lorenz is a bookish wannabe-poet, an ineffective dreamer dissatisfied by the ugliness of his poverty. He counts out coins for a street
book-vendor, which makes him late for work as a town clerk. Hurrying to make up time he's struck by a horse-drawn carriage. Has the accident affected
him? Forgetting work he follows the woman in white, through a weird hallucination of chasing her carriage through a white city. In a Billy Liar
sequence he fantasises not only of literary success, but of winning this unattainable woman too. Lorenz borrows money to buy smart clothes in
anticipation of his literary success, unaware that his poems have already been rejected. Meanwhile his flighty headstrong sister has her own,
less morally aspirational escapist route from drudgery. She argues with their overworked mother, and walks out. So that Lorenz then finds her
'carousing' as a good-time girl in a rowdy 'questionable' tavern, leading him into a brawl.
Things become odder when Lorenz meets Mellitta, and he confuses her with wealthy heiress Veronika, the object of his obsession. An understandable
confusion as they're both played by the same lovely Lya De Putti. He lies about being a famous poet. She exploits his haunted spellbound devotion,
with increasingly unrealistic demands, leading him - increasingly manic, fired from his job and overwhelmed by fate, to 'ruin'. Anton Edthofer plays
the wily caddish Wigottschinski, sister Melanie's live-in lover. He persuades the tormented Lorentz to help rob his employer, the pawnbroker Schwabe
who is already demanding Lorentz repay her loan. During the botched scam she is murdered, and although he was wimpishly grovelling on the floor at
the time, Lorentz is arrested as the mob gathers, and he's jailed. Full-circling it all back to him writing his memoirs.
Maybe the manuscript will inadvertently result in the literary acceptance that has so far eluded him? There is no phantom, he's only "chasing
after a shadow." This film is more psychological than it is supernatural, a 'crime and punishment' variant. Strangeness is kept to the minimum,
seen as aspects of Lorenz's distorted perception, as he's pursued by shadows through streets where the buildings lean in to crush him, or he's
chasing the ghost-carriage through the empty streets, and later there's a crooked Nosferatu-shadow on the wall behind him. It's all leisurely-paced,
starkly and sparsely shot, and over-theatrically acted out in the manner of the time. The colourising is unobtrusive, adding green or blue filters
to differentiate whole scenes.
Some time later Murnau migrated to Hollywood, just as sound was convulsing Tinseltown. He preferred to work with silents. Eureka have also issued
an enhanced DVD edition of his innovative and 1927's well-received Sunrise,
but within years of its success he was killed in an auto-wreck in March 1931, aged just 42. Greta Garbo - another European exile, was said to have
kept his death-mask on her desk during her movie years. The likes of Orson Welles noted, and learned from Murnau's fluid use of camerawork and
extended dolly-shots. Film critic Philip French suggests that Hitchcock saw Phantom while in Germany, and that it foreshadows his own
Vertigo. So yes, it provides an intriguing glance back. But, own up, if it wasn't for Nosferatu...