The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents February 2008 Return to Table of Contents
I Am Legend
ASC Close-Up
Post Focus
DVD Playback
Nosferatu
Nicholson Collection
Blade Runner
Nosferatu (1922)
The Ultimate 2-Disc Edition
1.33:1 (Full Frame)
Dolby Digital 5.1
Kino International, $29.95




Director of photography Fritz Arno Wagner was one of Germany’s most versatile cinematographers during its most fertile cinematic era, the period between the end of World War I and the rise of Hitler. Working with directors such as G.W. Pabst, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, Wagner proved himself to be as adept at photographing an expressionist atmosphere as he was at photographing documentary realism, and in his best films, such as Lang’s M, he combined the two approaches to great effect. This was certainly true of one of the cinematographer’s earliest triumphs, the landmark horror film Nosferatu. Although that film is best known for its evocative lighting effects — the shadow of a vampire’s hand metaphorically closing around the heart of his victim — Wagner’s work is as naturalistic as it is stylized, a technique dictated both by aesthetic concerns and by the low-budget nature of the production.

Nosferatu was Murnau’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (though Murnau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen changed the names and locations in order to avoid paying for the rights to Stoker’s novel). Nearly 90 years after its release, the picture retains an eerie power, thanks to the strength of the source material, the casting of Max Schreck as the title character and to Wagner’s dramatic lighting. The interiors at the vampire’s lair and the riveting climax of the film are photographed in a poetic pre-noir style, with characters emerging from and disappearing into shadows in a manner that would influence later horror movies such as Halloween and Night of the Living Dead. Yet large sections of the story also take place in broad daylight, with Murnau and Wagner turning a practical limitation (the need to shoot at preexisting locations) to their advantage and ultimately infusing Nosferatu with a sense of authenticity that adds greater impact to the story’s supernatural elements.

The restoration of Nosferatu, undertaken by Luciano Berriata for the F.W. Murnau Foundation in 2005-2006, is one of the most important film preservation projects of recent years, and Kino’s new two-disc DVD showcases Berriata’s work in all its visual and sonic glory. That the film exists at all is a bit of a miracle, given that a 1924 court ruling decreed that all prints of Nosferatu be destroyed (Bram Stoker’s widow understandably felt that her husband’s copyright had been infringed upon). Luckily for film scholars and horror fans, several copies of the movie had already been hidden in various locations when the judgment occurred, mostly in foreign countries. The primary source for the special-edition DVD was a 1922 nitrate print from France, though a handful of shots also came from a 1939 preservation copy and other sources, making for a transfer that is extremely impressive despite the film’s age and controversial history. There are occasional scratches in the source material, but the image is sharp and vibrant, and the digital-color tinting is simply stunning. With improved brightness, density and a precise restoration of the film’s original projection speed of 18fps, this is the best Nosferatu has ever looked on video — and probably the best it has looked in any format since its initial release. The movie sounds terrific, too, thanks to a new performance of Hans Erdmann’s original score, which is presented in rich 5.1 stereo and in two versions: one with the original German intertitles, which were restored with optional English subtitles, and the other with newly translated English intertitles.

The visual and aural reconstruction of the film is the subject of “Nosferatu: An Historic Film Meets Digital Restoration,” a brief extra that demonstrates the process by which Nosferatu was restored. The disc also includes the 52-minute documentary “The Language of Shadows,” a featurette directed by Berriata on the making of Nosferatu  and on Murnau’s early career. The documentary contains an overview of the director’s early output (although he was just 33 years old when he directed Nosferatu, it was his 10th film), and explores the personal experiences and historical context that shaped his art. Berriata also delves into the contributions of Murnau’s collaborators on Nosferatu and skillfully dissects the film’s literary and visual influences. The featurette places greater emphasis on logistical issues, such as locations and scheduling, than on technical matters, but it does address Murnau’s proclivity toward long focal lengths and some of his other simple but effective camera tricks, as well as Wagner’s use of backlight to signify the presence of the occult.

Further insight into Murnau’s style can be gleaned from the excerpts of his work that are included among Nosferatu’s extra features. Forty-five minutes of scenes from eight different films demonstrate the diversity and elegance of the director’s style, with clips not only from such acknowledged classics as The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926), but also from more obscure entries such as The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924). Remaining supplements include a gallery of stills and a “scene comparison” feature that allows the viewer to compare the finished film with Stoker’s novel and Galeen’s screenplay. Given the exemplary restoration job and enlightening supplements, one can only hope that other Murnau classics will get a similar treatment in the future.


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