Judge Gordon Sullivan would like to see today's movies replace dialogue with intertitles.
"A cornerstone of the horror film."
Every few months a news story comes out extolling the extent of media piracy. Though some figures show it's not a big deal while others claim its ruining the movie and music industry, all sides make it seem like a new phenomenon. That's not the case; the theft of intellectual property has a long and extensive pre-digital history. One of the more significant cases is Nosferatu: Symphony of Horror. The film is an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but rather than paying for the rights, F.W. Murnau changed a few details (names, characters) and presented the world with his own vampire tale. Stoker's widow took exception to this act of piracy. After winning in court, she had all the copies destroyed—or so she thought. Much like Count Orlok rising from his coffin, the film returned, as not every copy was destroyed. Now it stands as a landmark in the history of cinema, a brilliant example of Weimar-era filmmaking that also founds the horror genre on film. Thanks to the folks at Kino, fans can enjoy the new restoration of the film in hi-def.
Facts of the Case
Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim, Warning Shadows) is a German clerk sent to Transylvania to meet with new client Count Orlok (Max Schreck, The Land of Smiles). Once there he discovers that all is not as it seems. After his first night at the Count's remote castle, he realizes there are fresh puncture marks on his neck, and there's something odd about the Count. Later, Hutter realizes the Count is headed back to Germany, and he rushes to follow, afraid that the Count will attack his wife, Ellen (Greta Schroder, The Golem).
I hardly need to wax poetic about Nosferatu. It's coming up on a century in circulation, and it still has the power to transfix audiences. I do, however, want to say something about this particular version of Nosferatu. Like many, I first saw the film in an inferior version, in strict black-and-white, with dodgy English intertitles. Because Nosferatu isn't protected by a strong copyright interest, there have been a lot of inferior versions. Add to that the fact that the film has only recently been restored, and you've got a recipe for a film that looks terrible, with bad colors, improper frame rates, and inaccurate intertitles.
Throw those versions away. The recent restoration (undertaken by the Murnau Stiftung) presents the film as it's meant to be seen. The vast majority of the scenes have tinting applied to them, mainly blues and yellows to indicate time of day. Before I saw it for myself I wouldn't have believed what a difference these small changes can make, but the extra color eventually stops appearing as color. Instead it fades into a kind of visual atmosphere, really affecting how I viewed each scene. Seeing the proper frame rate is also essential; instead of every movement looking herky-jerky, the proper speed makes most characters look normal while emphasizing the fluid weirdness of the Count. Finally, seeing the film's original intertitles with appropriate translations helps keep the flavor of the original presentation of the film.
To make a long story short, don't write off Nosferatu until you've seen an appropriate version.
Luckily, there's no more appropriate version than Nosferatu (Blu-ray). The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1/1080p, with an AVC-encoded transfer. The first thing to note is that the source for this transfer is an amalgamation of a number of different prints that have been kept in various archives throughout the world. We're talking about a film that's ninety years old and was ordered destroyed, so there is no pristine negative or even print hanging around somewhere. So, expect some damage, mostly in the form of fine lines and specks. With that said, excepting a miracle, this is the best Nosferatu is going to look for a long, long time. Detail is frankly startling. There's a three-dimensionality to the image that I've never seen before. Because of the increased detail and clarity, the sets and deep focus are much easier to discern. Grain is appropriately handled, never getting too noisy or being wiped away by digital manipulation. Contrast is also impressive throughout, with a solid gradient between the darkest and lightest parts of the image. Aside from the limitations of the source, no other problems appear.
Two versions of the film are included. Disc One has a version with English intertitles, while Disc Two houses the version with the original German intertitles (where available, some of them are reconstructed, with English subtitle translations). Both discs off DTS-HD 5.1 and 2.0 version of Hans Erdmann's 1922 score. They're both fine tracks, with the surround version sounding a bit more immersive, unsurprisingly.
The set's main extra is a 52-minute documentary, The Language of Shadows, which talks about the film's production and the significance of some of its more esoteric elements. There's also a set of excerpts from other Murnau films, including his adaptation of Faust. There's also an image gallery. It doesn't seem too hefty, but these extras are satisfying for a film that has remained pretty mysterious throughout its ninety years.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I guess if you're raised on summer blockbusters and lightning-quick editing, the slow pace and lack of spoken dialogue might make Nosferatu an unappealing film. It takes a while to build up its atmosphere of weird dread, and those without the patience to succumb to the film will likely enough up laughing at the dated effects.
The only significant extra I see missing from this edition is the short restoration demonstration available on some previous DVDs. I don't think most fans will miss it much. However, this is a film that's old enough, and has enough scholarly commentary on it to warrant a commentary track or two. Anton Kaes has an especially compelling reading of the film that involves the film's relationship to World War I, and I'm sure he (or someone like him) could fill up the running time with interesting insights into the film.
Barring some miraculous discovery or someone investing a significant chunk of change in scholarly extras, this Nosferatu (Blu-ray) release is the definitive version and will likely stay so for a good long while. The film looks re-born with this re-mastered transfer, and the included extras are informative if not exhaustive. This disc belongs in the library of every Blu-ray owner who cares about world cinema and the horror genre.
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