No-count Dracula

If the dashing Count Dracula is impossibly slick, the verminous Count Orlok is impossibly sick.

Orlok, aka the vampire Nosferatu, was the first screen representation (albeit an unauthorized one) of the blood-sucking gent immortalized in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. The Orlok incarnation crept into the public consciousness in 1922, in German director F.W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (that is, A Symphony of Horror), which is today widely revered by classic-horror-film buffs.

Cinema in the Park, the free film series in downtown’s Pritchard Park, will feature Nosferatu as its final offering of the fall season.

With his bald and deformed cranium, pointed ears, rat-like teeth, clutching talons and huge hook of a nose, Orlok/Nosferatu (as played by then-obscure German stage actor Max Schreck) is a hideous nightmare of a creature. He channels nothing less than pure evil — the very antithesis of Count Dracula as portrayed by scores of actors over the years, beginning with Bela Lugosi’s elegant turn in 1931’s Dracula (the first authorized screen version of Stoker’s work).

Subsequent films presented Dracula as everything from downright campy (1974’s Andy Warhol’s Dracula, with Udo Kier in the title role) to perilously sexy (Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 opus, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with Gary Oldman doing the honors).

But the sheer inhuman horror of Murnau’s creature has never been matched.

Even the name Nosferatu — derived from the Greek word “nosophoros,” which means “plague carrier” — attests to the rodent-like savagery exuded by this version of Stoker’s creation.

Chip Kaufmann, a silent-film expert (and WCQS-FM on-air host), points to the movie’s deep symbolism.

“The really creepy aspect of Nosferatu was something that Murnau completely came up with,” explains Kaufmann, who selects all Cinema in the Park movies.

“In Stoker’s version, the vampire gets younger and younger and more handsome as we get to know him. Nosferatu is such a departure from that: He actually brings the plague with him, and that’s very symbolic for Murnau and the Germans of what happened to them after World War I.

“This, then, becomes an allegory for war reparation, and the terrible plague that descended on Germany economically. … Here is this figure of doom descending, who ultimately is vanquished at the end.”

This heady use of symbolism, along with the haunting play of light and shadow, has garnered the film a reputation as a darkly glorious example of German Expressionist filmmaking at its best.

However, Nosferatu departs from the genre in a few key ways — particularly in Murnau’s insistence on using natural locations rather than the elaborately staged, surreal settings that marked such Expressionist groundbreakers as 1919’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

“When you see the Carpathian Mountains in the film,” Kaufmann points out, “those are the real Carpathian Mountains.”

Nosferatu arising from his rat-filled coffin, the shadow of his mangled talons creeping up his victim’s bedclothes, the nightmare of his face frozen in a dark window — these iconic pictorials give the film the kind of resonance that still manages to shock even today, amid the world of dazzling CGI effects we’ve become accustomed to.

“By today’s standards, this film is very tame,” Kaufmann admits. “Maybe it doesn’t frighten you like it did people in the ’20s — but you never forget those images.”

However, if Stoker’s widow — Florence Balcombe Stoker, a celebrated Victorian beauty — had succeeded in asserting her formidable will, generations of filmgoers would never have laid eyes on these unforgettable images … or the mutant creature that became her personal nemesis.

As recounted in David J. Skal’s excellent book, Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula From Novel to Stage to Screen, Florence first became aware of the existence of Nosferatu when she received an anonymous mailing from Berlin. The letter included the program of a lavish cinematic event held in 1922, complete with full orchestral accompaniment, that had taken place in the Berlin Zoological Gardens: a German film described in the flyer as “freely adapted from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” (Nosferatu screenwriter Henrik Galeen had changed the names of the main characters; otherwise, the story was faithful to Stoker’s novel.)

The financially endangered Florence, now Stoker’s literary executor, had never given permission for the adaptation, nor received payment for it. Her enraged response was swift and unwavering: Not only did she want money, she wanted the negative and all prints of the film (which she would never actually see) immediately destroyed.

Florence launched a lawsuit that would drag on for years; at one point, the German production company Prana-Film declared bankruptcy to avoid paying for the adaptation. Finally, a court order declared the negatives and all prints of the film destroyed.

But you can’t keep a good vampire down. Despite the mandate, prints of the film slowly began to resurface in the late 1920s, with the first American screenings of it in New York City and Detroit in 1929.

The DVD release of Nosferatu, to be screened this week, has been wonderfully restored based closely upon the 1922 film.

Kaufmann emphasizes that this new version (with English subtitles) meticulously approximates the look and feel of the original.

As always, Cinema in the Park will feature live, local music to provide the “soundtrack” for the film (again approximating the original experience). For Nosferatu, it’s local ambient-electronica wizards the Ether Bunnies.

As Rupa Vickers, the series founder, notes, “Although movies have fantastic soundtracks now, the whole artistic aspect of merging movies with live, improvised music is an art that should never have been lost.”

And speaking of eternal life, consider this: E. Elias Merhige’s intriguing 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire — a mostly fictionalized account of the making of Nosferatu that garnered Willem Dafoe (playing Max Schreck) an Oscar nomination — raises a troubling question.

Was the mysterious Schreck actually a vampire himself?

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