F.W. Murnau

What makes NOSFERATU scary?

What makes NOSFERATU scary?

Tonight I was at a screening that proved how F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Dracula film, NOSFERATU, stands the test of time. You can watch it online via YouTube, but if you can this Halloween weekend, get yourself to a screening with live music. The extra oomph a live organ provides transforms the film from a historical, over-the-top expression-fest to a truly terrifying event. Don’t believe me? My seven-year-old kid could barely sit through the first ten minutes he was so utterly terrified.

So once you add a score – and a really good one at that – it’s easy to look beyond the elements that seem dated now, namely the acting. Acting styles have changed so radically in the past eighty years that we can barely recognize what now seems like camera-mugging as the same craft. But beyond that, not much else seems dated. In fact, the shot construction and framing feel very sophisticated. When Ellen (Greta Schroder), our sweetheart of a protagonist, is discovered sleepwalking just as the dreaded vampire is attacking his first victim miles away, we see her eerily tip toe through the frame far in the distance, the shot size diminishing her presence but emphasizing her fleeting, gorgeously scary physicality as she inches along a high terrace wall…

The silent treatment

The silent treatment

A scene from Ernst Lubitsch’s “So This is Paris,” of which only 10 minutes of films remains.
MoMA has been running a phenomenal program of silent films for the last two years, giving audiences a comprehensive look at the birth of cinema. But in case you missed out on two years of investigating the careers of the era’s most innovative directors, MoMA has put together a ‘best of’ before they switch over to talkies.

SUNRISE: A Song of Two Humans

SUNRISE: A Song of Two Humans

When F.W. Murnau and screenwriter Carl Mayer set out to make their very first Hollywood picture they were given an almost unlimited budget and complete artistic freedom. The result is SUNRISE (1927), one of only a handful of silent pictures without titles (or nearly without them). One of the wisest uses of that budget was hiring Janet Gaynor, one of the biggest names of the time and also one of the few actresses able to retain her star status even after she made the move from silent films to talkies. Her expressions say more than titles ever could have and transform the movie into something more like a visual poem.