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Thievery, ethics aside, Nosferatu effective chiller

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Max Schreck makes an indelible impression as Count Orlok.


Max Schreck makes an indelible impression as Count Orlok.

WHILE it is all very well to acknowledge F.W. Murnau's 1922 film Nosferatu as an influential horror classic, it also important to remember that it is also a brazen bit of thievery.

Murnau's Symphony of Horror is a wholly unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. The names are changed: Count Dracula becomes Count Orlok, Jonathan Harker becomes Thomas Hutter and the mad Renfield becomes the mad real estate wheeler-dealer Knock.

But the story, truncated as it may be, is pretty much the same. In fact, Stoker's estate sued the makers of this film, successfully. Almost all of the prints were destroyed. If one print hadn't survived, Nosferatu might have ended up as one of Guy Maddin's imaginative resurrections in his ongoing lost movie project. (I would really like to have seen that work; one can find trace elements in his ballet film Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary.)

Like the many screen iterations of Dracula, Murnau's film has survived many attempts at its destruction, and remains grotesquely vital in the digitally restored, colour-tinted version on view at Cinematheque, complete with a soundtrack featuring the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra's performance of Hans Erdmann's original 1922 score.

Overcoming the limitations facing filmmakers in the 1920s, Murnau's film is an effective chiller. It has crude stop-motion style effects. Its occasional use of fast-motion is more creepy than comical. The hyper-theatrical silent movie-style of acting is reliably entertaining, especially Alexander Granach as the fly-eating madman Knock.

But above it all is Max Schreck's vampire Count Orlok who endures in the imagination. With his bat-like ears, his bald head and his rodent teeth (unlike the pronounced canines of later Draculas), Shreck gave us the stuff that nightmares are made of.


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Cinematheque programmer Dave Barber does not program thematically related double bills, so one can be assured no connection is intended between Nosferatu and the doc Spring & Arnaud, notwithstanding artist Spring Hurlbut's creative obsession with dead things.

Directors Marcia Connolly and Katherine Knight offer up a lovely portrait of artists in love set in lovely surroundings: art galleries, beautifully cluttered offices and French country homes.

The subject of death is introduced quickly. Hurlbut frankly discusses her reservations upon falling in love with Arnaud Maggs, a man 25 years her senior, when she was 35, in the knowledge that he would predecease her. (Maggs in fact died in 2012.)

But death is a subject Hurlbut fearlessly explores in her work. (She recalls being inspired by a dead albino robin tucked in the recesses of the Royal Ontario Museum's storage vaults.) She is no less incisive on the subject when it comes to her partner's inevitable demise.

"I began mourning the loss of Arnaud before he died."

The problem with the film is that it is altogether too loving to its subjects, fine people though they may be. Connolly and Knight examine the artists' different processes, shows them making out in an empty gallery room and stage interviews in which the two are invariably bathed in gentle, complimentary light. It is a flat-out filmed tribute of the type we might see at a celebratory end-of-career retrospective.

Spring & Arnaud celebrates lives lived, but with a wilfully blind eye to the abrasions and discord that accompany real living.

Spring Hurlbut will introduce Spring & Arnaud at Cinematheque on Sunday at 7 p.m.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 31, 2014 D6

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