Ninety-nine years ago Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror was released, bringing the grotesque, lanky, crooked-fingernailed, figure of Max Schrek’s Count Orlok to life. Directed by F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu is now regarded as a groundbreaking piece of cinema. I’ve been meaning to watch it for a long time and this past Saturday night I finally watched this silent film.
Michaela Coel stated in her recent Emmy acceptance speech “…do not be afraid to disappear from it, from us for a while, and see what comes to you in the silence.” [Emphasis mine.] While Coel’s words are about writers finding their own inner quiet without pursuing visibility, I tried to bear the idea of silence in mind as I sat with this classic piece. A silent film. A story told with only facial expressions, pictures, and music.
But. Perhaps I came to Nosferatu slightly irreverently. Silent films have always been difficult for me—and, yes, I’ve seen plenty. I fully understand these films are pioneers, attempting something which had never been attempted before. But I clearly am an obnoxious modern movie-goer. I could not sit quiet through the prolonged establishing shots and the melodramatic performances. I overlaid the entire movie with my own commentary. Sarcastic comments, questionable jokes.
Still, if I stop to think about it, I clearly refused to sit in silence for one reason: The past is terrifying.
The movie itself wasn’t scary, let me be clear. I’ve seen many variations of Dracula and can recite the story backwards and forwards. I knew where all the “scares” were going to be. What made me nervous and edgy wasn’t the story, it was history itself as represented in the film.
Over-exaggerated features were everywhere, not only on Schrek’s Count Orlok. So many bushy eyebrows. Cracked and crooked teeth. Eyes too wide, staring too long. The make-up and costuming reminded me of the vintage Halloween costumes from the turn of the century—the ones with the children wearing potato sacks over their heads like strange scarecrows.
If I had lived in the time presented in this film, I would have been locked into an asylum right beside Knock (the Renfield of this version).
Somehow, the plastic masks and latex of today’s films don’t have the same scary resonance for me. Maybe because it does feel “plastic.” (I wish I had a better way of putting it.) It feels like, today, I could reach out, pull on the masks and they would come loose and I know I would see a child beneath. Nosferatu didn’t feel that way. It seemed like, if I reached through the screen, and tugged on those eyebrows or pressed those faces, the eyebrows would stay in place and all I would feel under my fingers would be real, too-soft skin. How on earth could parents convince children terrors weren’t real at the turn-of-the-century?
I think horror writers are, ironically, a pretty easily frightened group of people. When I was young, my brain tortured me with strange pictures in the ceiling popcorn of my bedroom. I would connect the bumps of white plaster into visions of long-toothed clowns or dagger-wielding hands. Even my father, standing on my bed, touching the ceiling to show me my imagination was playing tricks, was unsuccessful in calming me down. If I were a 1920s child, trick-or-treating with the ghoulish costumes of my peers, forced to cross thresholds guarded by crookedly-carved jack-o-lanterns, I would have lost my friggin mind.
Sitting in silence during the silent movie was not an option for me. To conquer the strange images of the past, I made fun of Hutter’s nightshirt, laughed at Ellen’s fainting spells, contemplated manicure options for the Count, and pondered why the werewolf-looking ship’s captain didn’t do head-to-head battle with the vampyre in his hold in an Underworld prequel.