About German director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, film historian Siegfried Kracauer wrote, “Reality in his films was surrounded by a halo of dreams and presentiments, and a tangible person might suddenly impress the audience as mere apparition.”
An icon of silent cinema, Murnau was already dead by the time the talkies gained popularity. He was killed in an automobile accident in 1931, aged 42. Nonetheless, the films he made in Germany in the 1910s and 1920s and later in Hollywood are still studied for their brilliant shot compositions, haunting close-ups and camera movements that were remarkably fluid for their time and astound even today.
Murnau’s Nosferatu marks its centenary this year. Based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu has pride of place in a Murnau retrospective at the International Film Festival of Kerala (December 9-16).
The programme, titled “Light and Shadows of FW Murnau”, will show restored versions of Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Faust, Sunrise and Tabu. The Murnau tribute sits alongside other retrospectives of Bela Tarr, Paul Schrader and Emir Kusturica. Nosferatu is also in a set of five silent films whose screenings will be accompanied by a live performance by British musician Jonny Best (including Foolish Wives, The Parson’s Widow and The Phantom Carriage).
Deepika Suseelan, who has replaced Bina Paul as the festival’s Artistic Director, knew Jonny Best from previous events. “When I wanted for this year’s festival was something that I have never done before, something new,” Suseelan told Scroll.in. “I wanted to show these restored films that have not been seen in India before to the youngsters who attend IFFK.”
In The Last Laugh (1924), a doorman at the luxury Atlantic Hotel is downgraded to toilet attendant. The doorman’s self-esteem and reputation in his neighbourhood depends on the liveried uniform that he wears with pride. The psychological wounds on his soul are conveyed not by text-laden intertitles – as was the convention with silent cinema – but through lighting, dramatic close-ups and subjective camerawork. The film also has some of Murnau’s most striking use of superimpositions in the editing transitions.
“There is a power and magic in silent cinema – it’s the primary place where you learn the basic aspects of filmmaking,” Suseelan observed.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), made after Murnau migrated to America to work in Hollywood, frequently – and justifiably – turns up on lists of the “Greatest Films Ever Made”. The story of a couple whose marriage is threatened by the man’s infidelity has highly emotive lighting, stylised sets and the use of forced perspective to heighten the passions being felt by the characters.
Murnau died soon after completing Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), set on an island in the South Pacific and featuring mostly indigenous actors.
Murnau’s pre-eminence in the history of German cinema can be gauged by the fact that Germany’s state-supported archive of its classic cinema is named after him.
Nosferatu has proved especially influential among horror film aficionados. While Bram Stoker’s Gothic classic of the undead Transylvanian count had already inspired a screen adaptation, Murnau’s version was an unauthorised adaptation. Like the blood-sucking aristocrat who disappears at sunrise, Nosferatu nearly vanished after Murnau and his producer were sued by Stoker’s estate and a court ordered the film’s prints to be destroyed.
The film inspired Werner Herzog’s remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), and provided the conceit for E Lias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a fictionalised retelling of the making of Nosferatu. Hollywood director Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse, The Northman) appears to be finally moving on his long-held dream of a Nosferatu remake, with Bill Skarsgard in the title role alongside Lily-Rose Depp.
Luciano Palumbo, the Head of Restoration and Digitisation at the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, told Scroll.in that Nosferatu, which has been restored four times, has been consistently in demand over the years.
“Because of the 100th anniversary of this masterpiece, around 200 requests from the beginning of 2022 already reached us for screening the film around the world,” Palumbo said. “To give you a comparison, before the Covid pandemic, for instance, in 2019, the amount of requests for this title was about 100 worldwide per year.”
The first restorations were carried out in 1981-84, 1987 and 1996, Palumbo said. “Because none of the previous restorations contained the elaborately designed and atmospheric original intertitles, and because there had been some mistakes in the colour scheme of the 1996 version, another restoration was planned in 2005. This was carried out by Luciano Berriatua for the Murnai Foundation.”
Around 40 of the original German intertitles were missing from the German print, which were reconstructed on the basis of the available titles. “In all, there were 214 places in the main source material that had to be supplemented by the additional film elements, including the original intertitles,” Palumbo said.