Something that we don’t have anything close to enough of in South Africa is revivals of older movies. (Admittedly, that’s not very high up on the nation’s list of priorities, but we cannot continue to neglect our cultural development on that basis of precedence-by-necessity.) For that reason, the screenings of classic and popular older films at places like the Bioscope in Johannesburg are especially welcome, and are to be taken note of whenever they arise. This post is to draw your attention to just such an occasion, taking place in Menlo Park in Pretoria, at the Brooklyn Theatre. On Sunday, 18 March, at 3 p.m., the Brooklyn Theatre will screen F.W. Murnau’s silent horror classic, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. The screening will be accompanied live by three young musicians — Danre Strydom, Cezarre Strydom, and Jana Mathee, each playing a number of different instruments, from woodwind and brass to string and keyboard instruments — who will perform a live musical score to the silent film. (Dialogue is shown in intertitles, translated into English.) The music to be played was reportedly chosen from a number of different sources and style eras, all specifically orchestrated for this performance and to fit with the intended mood of the film.
The reason to hurry along to this screening (and to book your tickets, which can be done here) is not merely for the novelty of attending a live musical performance as the score for a silent film (though it’s certainly reason enough for those who are interested in that sort of thing), but for the sheer artistic power of Murnau’s film, no matter the sounds selected or devised to be played along with it. I attended a similar event last year at the Bioscope, where another Murnau silent classic — Tartuffe, from 1926, chosen to coincide with the performance at the Joburg Theatre of Molière’s play — was played silently and accompanied live, that time by a jazz pianist who was improvising his score throughout. I don’t remember anything about the music he played (which should say enough as a criticism of his improvisations), but Tartuffe was wondrous enough a cinematic experience for it to have been worthwhile no matter what he played, or even if nothing was played and we had watched the film in total silence.
Murnau was one of the very first masters of the cinema. After World War I, during which he had served as a soldier, been held in a POW camp, and performed as part of a prisoners’ theatre (a start to life that itself suggests material for a remarkable movie), he started his own film studio in Germany. His first feature was released in 1919 and was followed by sixteen more features produced in Germany, ending with Faust (adapted from Goethe’s Faust), in 1926. Together with the work of other German filmmakers released at the same time, such as that of Fritz Lang and Robert Wiene, his output constitutes the main body of what has come to be known as German Expressionism in cinema, which arrived around the same time as Expressionism in other art forms (like architecture, painting, and music), and which eventually led to and strongly influenced the Hollywood style and genre of film noir, once all the prominent German filmmakers had emigrated to Hollywood by the end of World War II. Murnau was offered a contract to work in Hollywood by Fox Studios in 1926, which he accepted, and from which arose simply one of the most beautiful films ever made, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, as well as three more films produced in Hollywood, before Murnau was killed in a car accident in 1931.
Nosferatu is one of Murnau’s most famous works, and one of his most highly esteemed today. It’s a great artwork in its own right, and I once wrote that, as per its subtitle, “A Symphony of Horrors,”
a symphony is precisely what Murnau offers. Silent films can often seem both alienating and abstractly intriguing, in that they add an extra degree of stylisation to their presentation (in addition to the already large distinctions of being in black-and-white, and the distractingly archaic photographic quality). But this extra stylisation adds extra artifice, and, in the hands of a genius creator, higher artifice can bring greater truth or wonder. … The highly unrealistic sets, costumes, and makeup schemas in Nosferatu are brought together with a very specific style of performing and design [and, I would add, lighting, framing, and composition], that in fact make the film not just strange but mind-altering, in the proportions of a revelation.
Roger Ebert wrote of it that to see it “is to see the vampire movie before it had really seen itself.” But there is no vampire movie I have seen that could surpass it. Indeed, many genre conventions and cultural associations had yet to be added to the genre and the canon would be filled out by a great many additions by later filmmakers, some of them well worth that heritage (Werner Herzog remade Nosferatu in 1979), but, as in any film genre that Murnau had laid his hand on, the great excess and wonder of beauty that his film packs could not be equalled by any artist except those of an equivalent brand of genius — and that class of filmmakers is precious small, across the decades of film history, and across the countries of the world.
P.S.: The one revival house open and available to all (who can afford it) is the option of streaming, which is growing gradually as more people buy subscriptions to Showmax and Netflix in this country. But whoever it is in charge of each platform’s title acquisition seems dead set on keeping everyone’s focus on the very recent part of film history, and on the very narrowest sections of Hollywood and, with Showmax, of South African mainstream entertainments. I encourage all who are as intent as I am on seeing many more of the pleasures and treasures that cinema has to offer, to contact support at whatever platform it is that you use and let them note the woeful dearth of wondrous and worthwhile selections in their offering.