After watching Blockheads at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum yesterday afternoon (see this and that for quick reports typed on my phone), I drove to San Francisco to see Nosferatu at the Castro—the last of four silent film screenings accompanied by the Club Foot Orchestra.
Quick summary: Great movie. Great score. Horrible print.
Here’s what I say in my weekly newsletter when Nosferatu plays in a local theater:
You best forget about sexy vampires before you go see the first film version of Dracula (an unauthorized version that got the filmmakers sued by Bram Stoker’s widow). Max Schreck plays Count Orlok (the name change didn’t fool the court) as a reptilian predator in vaguely human form. This isn’t the scariest monster movie ever made, but it’s probably the creepiest. Not be confused with Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake.
In this print, the thirsty Count was, in fact, Dracula, not Orlok. The English subtitles used Stoker’s character names rather than Murnau’s. I don’t know the history of the film’s various English-language releases, but older prints in this country generally do this. I don’t think I saw Nosferatu with the correct character names until the DVD came out.
This isn’t a fatal problem. It makes the movie more of an adaption of Dracula and less of a rip-off (which, frankly, is what it is, although a brilliant one), but it doesn’t hurt the picture’s eerie sense of foreboding.
Far worse than the out-of-date, less-than-accurate intertitles was the image quality. It lookedore like a bad xerox than a photographic print, with many details completely lost. When Jonathan Harker looks in his shaving mirror and sees two marks on his throat, we couldn’t see them. Lighter portions of the image were blown out entirely, becoming nothing more than white splotches on the screen. I know there are better prints of Nosferatu than this. I wish the Club Foot Orchestra would get one. The last time I saw this movie theatrically it was off a DVD, and it looked much better than this.
But the Orchestra did its own job brilliantly. A nine-piece ensemble with an eclectic selection of instruments (heavy on wind) and a real conductor, Club Foot makes great noise for just this sort of expressionistic silent film. The group can play conventional, harmonic tunes, or a seemingly anarchic cacophony, or both in counterpoint—as they do in the scene when Nina in her sleep senses that Jonathan is in danger. They can also use their instruments to create the weirdest of sound effects.
If any film calls for weird, frightening, and disturbing music, it’s Nosferatu. And if anyone can deliver that, it’s the Clubfoot Orchestra.