Film My first viewing of Murnau's Nosferatu was exactly eight years ago today and I can't think of a better way of celebrating than to repost, as a Halloween treat, the original story of that night. Back we go to Thursday, October 30, 2008.
I don’t remember being as cold as I was earlier tonight. I know it’s the winter, and there have been a fair few times when I’ve sat on lonely railway platforms waiting for trains that might not come and I’ve shivered through minutes which seemed like hours but stations, even those open to the air still seem to have a warmth, even if it's because of the internal glow of knowing that home and a warm bed will be in the future. Tonight I stood for an hour and a half in the one place, my feet were numb, my cheeks raw and even hiding my wrists within my armpits underneath my coat didn’t work. I couldn’t move, but didn’t want to move and grim determination was forcing me to stay until the end.
Especially because as a film fan, there was no way I was going to turn up to watch Murnau’s ‘vampire’ film Nosferatu on the Big Screen in Clayton Square in Liverpool and leave in the middle (though some did). Tonight was the Biennial’s The Long Night, and galleries throughout the city opened their doors until late with events including poetry readings at FACT, a short film festival at the Open Eye Gallery and this Halloween presentation in one of the most public squares in the city. Of course I selected the outdoor option on a night like this. In case you need to picture the scene, the BBC Big Screen sits between a Tesco Metro and a Zavvi and is one of the main thoroughfares through to bus stops and Lime Street Station.
This is not the perfect situation in order to see any film, even if it is a silent and yet it’s also the perfect place because it’s so unlikely. As the crowd gathered, people dashing past with their shopping also stopped to look and asked what we were watching. Cars drove through, a large van at one point threatened to park directly between the viewers and the screen (you can imagine the jeers which greeted that possibility), various teenagers turned up and poked fun at the images or rode about on bikes.
Photographers queued up to take pictures of us, looking up at the screen on mass. I’ve seen spontaneous crowds develop in this same spot whenever a big news story breaks, but that’s different to our collective sense of purpose, of watching one of film history’s most unusual films in unusual circumstances. Which isn't to say that everyone stayed until the end; whilst some were doggedly sitting on the floor under blankets, others walked away visibly shivering.
It’s a measure of what the director achieved that somehow some of his images pierced through despite the conditions, the noise, the lights, the distractions. By cranking the camera in experimental ways so that Max Schreck’s movements in the title role become unnatural, despite the obvious make up, he’s a chilling presence, though the directors has already noticed that the best way to show your monster is hardly at all and to let the victim’s fear project the image of what their seeing and it’s that we’re repulsed by.
Taboos seem to stop Murnau from showing Nosferatu actually killing anyone, so the director instead emphasises the details of his killing and also introduced a plaque which spreads in his stead, allowing for lashings of coffin imagery and religious iconography. Considering the film was made in 1922 it still holds up remarkably well as a horror film, if not more so because the production design and values are alien to anything we’re accustomed to seeing a decade under a century later.
There's no doubt the temperature helped with the atmosphere too, as steam rose from our mouths, though I'd be lying if I said there was no chatting, especially at the points when the film repeats story information (we know what happened on the ghost ship, we saw it) or is just plain incoherent (who are all these new characters? What happened to Hutter?).
The new soundtrack provided by Liverpool group a.P.A.t.T. was a multi-textured accompaniment, which oscillated wildly but cleverly between a rural folksy sound to at one point, when the context within which that kind of beastie can exist in the real world is being explained by scientists, a dance piece with BBC Radiophonic Workshop influences. We saw the band as the film played, either cross faded with the action or in a small box at the corner of the screen.
I think I actually lost track of the story during one of these moments and the effect was rather like watching Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs with the whoopee making replaced by German Expressionist motifs. But it didn’t matter – this wasn’t a time to be investigating Murnau’s use of lighting, but just to be in a place, enjoying an experience so that one day I can say to someone as we’re passing through:
“You know what? I watched Murnau’s Nosferatu here one All Hallows Eve. It was freezing, and a truck nearly ran me over.”
You can see images of the event at Bren O'Callaghan's webpage.