Monday, September 14, 2009

House of Silent Scream: "Watching silent movies as if they were other people's dreams."

Denis, the international man of mystery behind the punctuation enhanced "The Horror!?" blog, was, until very recently, the best kept secret in the genre blog biz. Smart, insightful write-ups on a mind-boggling array of films. He's to horror blogging what Elvis Costello is to music: He's doing great work all over the map. Lucha flicks, kung fu horror, Euro-trash exploiters, Bollywood slashers, chance's are the Denis has been there and written it up.

Talent, like blood, will out and Denis is now also posting work at the excellent "WTF-Film" site - schooling an ever broader audience on the topics such as "the wild man of the toilet" from 2004's "Oh My Zombie Mermaid."

Special thanks to Denis for taking the time to contribute to the anniversary celebrations. Screamers and Screamettes, dig hard babies!


I find writing about silent movies - much more so than actually watching them - exceedingly difficult. While I usually don't even flinch when confronted with differences in style or filmic language, silent movies always seem to come from more than just a different time or place and to deserve a more scholarly treatment than I am capable of.

The problem is amplified even further when a film has been as heavily analyzed as Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's Nosferatu - Eine Symphonie des Grauens. There is probably not much to say about it that hasn't already been said. Fortunately, the nice thing about blogging is that one's personal lack of knowledge does not always need to keep one away from trying to wring out a few words about a film.

Even better - I'm not all that interested in talking facts about movies anyway, especially not about films like Nosferatu which invite one to be read as dreams rather than narratives.
This method of watching silent movies as if they were other people's dreams, forgoing the need for logic, plot and other unnecessary ballast is the best way to derive pleasure from them for me and makes it easier to watch European films of the silent era than the often slicker American ones which on paper keep much closer to our modern sensibilities.

The German filmmakers of the Weimar Republic were a very peculiar mix of the commercial filmmaker of today and the mad scientist of future movies, giving their better films a mood that I find quite close to that of other films better understood as dreams than as narratives - the European exploitation movies of much later periods. Yes, I propose to watch Murnau films as if they were made by Jess Franco.

The commercial interests of Nosferatu are obvious. Taking the basic plot of a novel like Stoker's Dracula (of course without paying the author's estate) as the base for your film is as commercially minded as anything Roger Corman ever did, although Corman would never have been so obvious about it that you could have sued him.

But I don't think that the interesting parts of Nosferatu are those close to the book. It is much more important which parts of the book Murnau and his scriptwriter Henrik Galeen choose to ignore.

I see the original Dracula as a modernization of Gothic tropes for the contemporary British audience of the 1890s and have a lot of sympathy for interpretations of Dracula as standing in for venereal disease and/or the fear of the other. Murnau's film, though, isn't interested in syphilis or modernization of tropes at all (which doesn't mean that he has nothing to say about/to his contemporary world - that part comes automatically). On the contrary, Nosferatu is full of the medieval attacking a present that seems already too much in thrall of the past anyway. Isn't that very German of it?

For me, as someone who finds parts of it still downright terrifying, this is the point from which the film derives most of its strength: Max Schreck's Nosferatu is an ancient, ancient thing come to eat up the future and drag the present back into his past of rats and plague, not so much a corrupting influence as Dracula is, but a regressive one. Nosferatu's horror is the horror of a past that has never been laid to rest and so just keeps shambling on, smothering the young and preventing a future that's worth living.

Seen from this angle, the end of the film itself starts to look horrifying. Even though the past is laid to rest, Ellen Hutter's youth and innocence have to be sacrificed and she herself has to become something exceptionally medieval herself - a saint. And where I stand, there is nothing more horrifying than a saint when you are trying to cope with the present.

2 comments:

Pauline said...

Two of my favorite bloggers in the same spot? I'm dizzy! What a great Monday this is turning out to be. Thank you. Both!

houseinrlyeh said...

Aw, thank you. You're welcome, of course!