The sound story of ‘Nosferatu’, a silent film classic

When I was little, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau I dreamed of being like Gustav Mahler. In Nosferatuthe silent film classic that marked the way for vampire films and whose centenary this year marks its premiere, this vocation is evident even in the subtitle: symphony of horror. It was not the only time. In the other great beauty of hers, Sunrise (1927), Murnau chose to complete the title in a similar way: two person symphony. And according Edgar G Ulmerwho worked for him as a set designer and later was also a film director, both were shot by his teacher with a metronome in hand, a device used to measure the tempo of musical compositions.

That’s why, even though the film is silent, it had a soundscape that was lost, but it can still be seen. hear attending to the details of the film, reading the diaries of people linked to the film, the chronicles of the premiere and some of the books dedicated to Murnau’s work.

Max Schreck, on the set of ‘Nosferatu’.

To begin with, the film was silent, but not the shooting. And despite the fact that a scary story was told, the most common thing was to hear people laughing on the set. “People were happy. He didn’t sound angry even when he was very angry,” Robert Herlth, set designer for Murnau’s first productions, told memoirs. It is not the only reference to the way of speaking German, of whom the collaborator explained that he recited poems in his university years with a deep and magnetic voice and that at work he gave all his instructions “in a very soft voice”.

on the set of Nosferatu there were also less pleasant sounds. Like the rubbing and gnawing of the 50 rats that the production team bought after placing an advertisement in the press in order to fill the hold of the ship in which the vampire arrives in the city. Also that vessel, the jurgen (a tribute to the Lumière brothers’ train), appears morose and mute on the screen, as if it were a ghost, despite the fact that Walter Spies, Murnau’s partner and very active in the filming, explained in his memoirs that the noise that he did when he entered the port of Wismar to shoot those sequences was “thunderous”. Even so: “It was the first time in the history of silent cinema that silence was heard, the death of all sound. No subsequent horror film has surpassed the horror of that first image. Words of the German critic Andres Kilb in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

In the movie, the scenarios don’t sound either, but they say a lot about the story and the intra-story of Nosferatu. Little can be added about the decorations, pure expressionism of which Murnau was a master, although about the natural spaces that he chose with great care. As Mary Hallab recalls in VAmpire God: The Allure of the Undead in Western Culture (Vampire God: The Charm of the Living Dead in Western Culture), Vampires and nature go hand in hand. The figure of the undead represents the disease, the plague and the grim reaper, and to end him is to end these misfortunes. Nosferatu marks that path: Murnau identifies the vampire with the plague that is approaching the town. That he opted for bright places is not a contradiction, on the contrary: it increases fear. As if telling the viewer that what counts Nosferatu It happens in the real world, which is possible.

The sites chosen were the woods of Lubeck; the colorful city of Wismar, the Tatra mountains or the castle of Oravsky Podzamok in Dolny Kubin (Slovakia). And all in motion: branches moved by the breeze; people running; clouds and sun coming and going over the castle, or the hurricane wind from the island of Sylt that ruffles the hair and dress of the young woman who, in the scene on the beach, awaits her husband being held by the vampire. These are just some of the tools that the music lover Murnau used to get away with it in a silent film: making music with the images.

This is how critic Jo Leslie Collier explains it in From Wagner to Murnauwhere it counts that the german was based on the opera The Flying Dutchman to roll Nosferatu: “He strove, like his predecessors in the theater, to create an equivalent to music with images, using the movement of actors and objects within the shot to set the rhythm.” Hence the importance of the bells: in all the urban enclaves of Nosferatu there is a gothic church, and although its playing is not heard, they can be seen moving and marking the tempo of the plot and the actors. With the same goal, to make them move as he wanted, Murnau put on music after shouting “action” to his interpreters. That is why Collier says that Nosferatu it is “a symphony created with the harmony of bodies and the rhythm of space”. In case there were any doubts, remember that Murnau himself described the staging of his film as “an attempt to convey tonal chords in space.”

Once the filming was finished, the noise of the premiere arrived. The producer, a strange subject and related to the occult, Al Grau, was in charge of creating a promotional campaign that included posters, advertisements, press releases… He also applied himself to generating great expectations and for this reason, on the day of the premiere, the On March 4, 1922, he reserved the marble hall of the Berlin Zoo and organized a masked ball where live music played. The attendees, among whom were artists, journalists and other film directors, such as Ernst Lubitsch, attended by invitation and dressed in the Biedermeier style, that is, with typical bourgeois costumes of that time. The music that marked the premiere was Die Serenade, a dance written by Hans Erdmann, who would later compose the accompaniment for The testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) by Fritz Lang, and performed by a soloist dancer from the State Opera.

From Erdmann was also all the music that accompanied the film. Ten pieces with titles as generic as Idyllic, Lyrical, Eerie, Stormy, Destroyed, Good, Bizarre, Grotesque, Unleashed Y Disturbed. Between all of them, they added up to 40 minutes for a length of 94. That work was lost. In 1995, the conductor Gillian B. Anderson was in charge of reconstructing what that premiere must have sounded like in 1922. To do so, he resorted to three sources: the Fantastisch-romantische Suitea work that Erdmann composed in 1926 made partly with compositions by Nosferatu; the chronicles of the premiere, and a manual on film music signed by the composer. For this reason, Anderson believes that to complete the footage, pieces were repeated that were chosen according to the mood that Murnau intended to provoke in each sequence. The fact that Erdmann included an overture to begin the film from the opera Der Vampyr (1828), by Heinrich Marschner, made the composer think that Erdmann must have used other repertoire works: the Mephistopheles of Arrigo Boito, for example.

The musical legacy that Murnau left to the cinema is not only in his films. Ulmer not only learned how to work like a craftsman from his mentor: if his teacher used a metronome to compose music with the images, Ulmer rolled many times with a baton that belonged to Franz Liszt in hand. Never, as with Murnau, did silent cinema leave such a sound legacy.

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The sound story of ‘Nosferatu’, a silent film classic