Last night the Brixton Ritzy was offering the perfect antidote to all the royal wedding palaver – a screening of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 horror classic, Nosferatu, with live accompaniment courtesy of a collective called Minima. I believe it was the oldest film I’ve ever sat through (previous record 1929), and I was rapt with interest throughout, marvelling at how filmmakers of that era were able to tell a story despite the limits of their technology.
The acting on display was undoubtedly over the top – I guess determined by the fact it was essentially mime – but also seemed to take pleasure in its own excess, at times bordering on the downright unhinged. My actor friend informs me this is known as ‘German Expressionism’; in any case, it threw a spanner in the works of any spurious division I was trying to draw recently between cinema and theatre work (and if you haven’t seen the comments on that post, by the way, there are some real good ‘uns).
Since this was pretty much the first vampire film, it was fun to spot various cinematic trends being set: rickety-wheeled carriages, the hunchbacked ‘Igor’ figure, and the distinctive floating movement of the count. Other aural trademarks (Igor’s lisp, creaking coffin lids) would have to wait. Meanwhile, I’m not sure any vampire since has looked quite so diabolical as Max Schreck’s cone-headed, spindly-fingered Orlock.
The term ‘silent film’ is of course misleading – these performances were filled with almost constant sound, more than you’d get in your average arthouse flick today. It was a pleasure to listen to Minima’s live music, a contemporary score which added both drama and humour (watch a taster here). Most wonderfully, the light from the drummer’s music happened to cast his giant moving figure onto one of the auditorium’s walls, mirroring those shadows deployed to such creepy effect in the film itself.
More than anything else, my attention was held by just how old this film was. It’s funny to think that what was quite normal then (live accompaniment) is considered a treat today – and what we now take for granted (colour, talking, cameras moving all over the place) would have seemed magical at the time. Don’t get me wrong – I’m glad I live now and not in 1922… but if you do get the chance to see a silent film, accompanied as it would have been all those years ago, I’d highly recommend it.