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18 Jun 2022

Nosferatu, a symphony of horror even after a century

Long before Jason in Friday the 13th, Freddy in Nightmare on Elm Street or Michael in Halloween, there was Nosferatu, perhaps the first horror icon in cinema history who, even without countless sequels (only Herzog dared a remake in 1979), has managed to survive to this day. Depicted by the German F.W. Murnau (himself one of the great figures of silent film), the pale, hunchbacked, demonically pathetic, long-fingered, and shadow-torn look, so photogenic and fierce in the dim light, wouldn't seem out of place on a hipster T-shirt today. It was the first genuine vampire movie, filmed on real locations (Slovakia), but also an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which explains the name change.

Yet, is the bizarre Count Orlok (Max Schreck) still creepy today, exactly 100 years after his birth? I'd say so: it depends on who you sniff it with and in which state you do it. And above all, an inspired and thrilling soundtrack, as we hope the one at TIFF will be, matters a great deal. The reverberating sounds will seep into our souls just as the Count trickles through the gothic, expressionistic arches.

Few monsters are as instantly recognizable, even in silhouette alone. Yes, this silent film masterpiece also matters to the history of cinema because it invented techniques and established horror stereotypes. But the ultimate credit for the fascination the iconic monstrosity still exerts on us is Max Schreck's performance. Cristina Massaccesi, in her commentary for the series on the history of the horror genre, Devil's Advocates, calls him “the father of all the undead, hiding in the darkest recesses of the cinema screen”.

Although inspired by Dracula, Orlock's image has become so powerful that it clearly differs from that projected by typical Transylvanian vampires. Nosferatu is one of cinema's strangest and most hideous protagonists. He's not seductive, he's repulsive and detestable. In sketching him, Murnau drew inspiration from Eastern European folklore (an obscure region populated by freaks, as we know). He' s not noble, but animalistic. It has been speculated that his rat-like design was closely linked to the traumas of war or the Spanish flu epidemic. Schreck couldn't use his voice or the dialogue of the novel, couldn't adopt an exotic accent like Bela Lugosi later, so he had to use body language alone to invent an eerie stiffness and slow, rigid movements: he slipped perfectly into the gothic strangeness of the character, while refusing caricatural exaggeration.

However, you can see for yourself why Nosferatu remains a cult (and underground) anti-hero to this day, tomorrow night in the ideal setting of the atmospheric Bánffy Castle, with a live soundtrack produced by the artists of the Hungarian Opera from Cluj.

An article written by Anca Grădinariu