29 June 2019

A RATHER BLOODLESS VAMPIRE

Rolf Giesen. The Nosferatu Story, The Seminal Horror Film, its Predecessors and its Enduring Legacy. McFarland Company, 2019.

There is an unfortunate typo on the back cover of Rolf Giesen’s book. We are informed that the author is “an expect on early fantasy and science fiction films.” Shame on you, McFarland proof readers! Yet to claim Giesen is an “expect” (Is this a new word coined for a writer waiting in expectation of writing better?) and not an expert (A writer with a specialist knowledge who you hope can write well?) makes for an ironic light being shone on this author’s ability.

For having ploughed through an exhausting ‘comprehensive’ study of Nosferatu (1921) I was left wanting, and expecting, more to be said about why the author so reveres this universally acknowledged masterpiece of silent film. Unfortunately we don’t have his own analysis in a part-reference book with important source material saddled (for me) with some completely unimportant facts, padding and digression.

To defend the book there are well chosen quotations from critics and film people, very sharp black and white illustrations, a useful filmography of productions influenced by Nosferatu, and a second filmography on German Expressionist Cinema.

That’s all well and good. Yet Giesen’s research spirals into completist madness in the section supplying a list of the biographies of the film’s crew and cast, culminating with an entry for an obscure actor named Eugen Rex who had a bit part only in The Twelfth Hour (which is the 1930 reissue of Nosferau.) This actor is given a whole page listing his other credits (50 silent and 70 sound films.) Did I really want to know this?

Now you could maybe argue that for pedantic film scholars this is admirable. But for the general reader it feels like a major diversion from our subject (A sublime horror film) and sticks out as irrelevant research. Most reference books, by their nature, can be useful if impersonal tools. But why be an impersonal read? And that’s my main contention: this book lacks personality.

The author’s obsessive concern with facts about the production of Nosferatu drains it of energy causing you to stop reading and return to watching the film on DVD. So if you acquire this book (and it will tell you a lot of things about Nosferatu’s “enduring legacy’) but really want instead to experience Nosferatu then throw away the information: which is a great pity as I wanted to absorb Giesen’s most relevant facts, more enthusiastically conveyed, but they weren’t, to accompany the film and further enhance my enjoyment.

This book has stiff competition. Amazon already lists six other studies of Nosferatu. Two that I read again after Giesen were Nosferatu by Kevin Jackson (BFI Film Classics, 2003) and Nosferatu: The Ultimate Film Guide by Roy Ashbury (York Press, 2001) They are less reference-book driven yet manage to contain all the detail, facts and analysis I wanted in a much more succinct and focused manner.

I haven’t summarised the plot of Nosferatu. Giesen takes ten pages of laboured storyline to do so! One page would have been enough for me. I won’t attempt a one page effort: just a few remarks on the film’s production values. Let me say that Max Shreck is phenomenally good as the rat-like faced vampire, Murnau’s direction is poetic and innovatory, the camerawork superb, the whole film has an eerie atmosphere that’s difficult to put into words and the thankfully (for an early vampire film) doesn’t have a happy Christian ending.

Now you may find some of these observations buried in Giesen’s book – it does need tougher editing to clarify its subject. Or you may not. If you don’t then go out and buy the other Nosferatu books I’ve mentioned. Or better still wait for the BFI Southbank, or any regional art cinema’s next outing for Nosferatu on the big screen: watch and be haunted by its power. And when your amazement subsides selectively read and search for the facts you really desire. – Alan Price.


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