Table of Contents
2. Colours and Lighting
2.1. Symphonie (1922)
2.2. Phantom (1979)
3.1. Symphonie (1922)
3.2. Phantom (1979)
4. Cinematography and Editing
4.1. Symphonie (1922)
4.2. Phantom (1979)
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu - Eine Symphonie des Grauens (hereafter: Symphonie) is a horror film classic from 1922. It is a black and white silent film that was sentenced to be destroyed after a copyright lawsuit in 1925. Apparently, Symphonie was an unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. At that time the movie had already received international publicity and had been distributed beyond German borders so that not all film material could be destroyed. Until today, several restored and edited versions of the movie exist and it is uncertain which of them is closest to Murnau’s original. My analysis is based on the public domain version, which is also called the Bremen version. In this version the intertitles differ from other versions, the story is set in Bremen instead of Wismar and the names of the characters have been changed into Stoker’s names from the novel. (Schnittberichte)
In 1979 Werner Herzog produced a movie called Nosferatu - Phantom der Nacht (hereafter: Phantom), in which he used Stoker’s characters and Murnau’s direction ideas. In many parts, Herzog’s film looks like a direct copy of Murnau’s movie, except that it was filmed in colour and with sound. As far as the content is concerned the movies differ from each other only in the ending, which is more pessimistic in the latter film.
In this paper, I will first analyse and compare the influence of colours and lighting on the atmosphere in both movies. Thereafter, I will point out the differences in atmosphere between the silent movie with background music and the film with diegetic sounds. Finally, I will focus on some differences in cinematography and editing in order to find out how different techniques evoke different feelings in the viewer.
I will do all this with the intention of proving that, even though advanced filming techniques have improved the understanding of details in movies, the genre of the horror film has not profited from the developments but, in contrast, runs the risk of appearing absurd or parodic.
Before I begin, I want to explicitly stress that I am using the public domain version of Symphonie and therefore some of the elements to be analysed might differ from the original or other existing versions. This is especially important as the public domain version is not tinted, which might alter the outcome of the colour analysis. Also, the soundtrack not being the original could result in a different conclusion than it might with the original soundtrack. The discrepancies in cutting and editing between the versions should be slight enough as not to have an effect.
2. Colours and Lighting
2.1. Symphonie (1922)
Since Murnau’s film is a black and white movie lighting is more important than in Phantom. Without colours, the lighting becomes the only means of highlighting or blending in features that the producer deems more or less important. The absence of colours moreover entails a major problem in Symphonie: the depiction of day and night. Whereas in coloured movies it is easy to deptict whether it is light or dark outside, in the black and white movie it is hard to film in darkness. Therefore even night scenes have to be well lit in order for the setting to be seen at all. This brings about some confusing scenes in Symphonie. Knowing that Dracula can only be outside at night-time, the viewer will wonder about some settings when watching the movie. For example, when Jonathan Harker arrives at the castle shortly before midnight (20:12), the setting is illuminated so brightly that it looks like noon instead. The viewer gets the same impression when Dracula walks through Bremen with his coffin, especially when he passes a big tree that casts a shadow (59:34). This kind of shadow can only be cast in daylight, so the audience has to guess that it is night by the fact that Dracula cannot live in daylight. Wrongly depicting such important facts reveals that it must have been hard to film black and white movies distinguishing between night and day. Throughout his movie Murnau generally solves this problem by letting the viewer know what daytime it is via intertitles, for example when Dracula lets Harker know that it is nearly midnight (21:20).
Shadows or shadings, as being the counterpart of lighting, are also a lot more important in black and white movies than in coloured movies. Highlighting any detail in a given frame is only possible by making it brighter than the rest of the setting. When agent Renfield is introduced (4:38) he is right in the middle of the frame and directly lit by side lighting, which can be seen from the reflection on his head. This reflection, in combination with the shadings under his eyes from some top lighting, underlines his sinister appearance. When Renfield tells Harker about sending him to Transylvania, again there is harsh side lighting which has the effect of Renfield casting a shadow onto Harker (5:58). This emphasises Renfield’s superiority, being the boss and knowing about Dracula, and it could also be seen as a foreshadowing of the dark events to come. When Harker tells his wife Nina about his journey to Transylvania (7:50) there is bright lighting from behind Nina’s back, which illuminates Harker’s face so brightly that it is hardly recognisable against the wallpaper. Nina’s face on the other hand is well observable and shaded, which underlines her fears for her husband. The striking lighting arrangement in this frame could stand for the fact that she feels a bad foreboding so tangible that she can nearly see the danger, whereas Harker is unsuspecting and cannot foresee that something bad will happen.
Another function of lighting can be to establish space, an example of which can be found when Harker and Dracula are sitting at the dining table in Dracula’s castle. After an establishing shot (21:45), both characters are alternately shown in medium shots. As Harker and Dracula are the focus of the shots, they need to set themselves apart from the rest of the frame. This is done by strong key lighting, which makes them appear a lot brighter than the rest of the room. It is striking that behind both of the characters a shoulder wide part of the wall is also brightly lit, so that the viewer gets a feeling for the space.
Two last comments about lighting in this movie seem important to me. Firstly, in longer than medium shots on Dracula his hands and his face always contrast strongly with his black robe (e.g. 77:43). Therefore they are the direct focus of the viewer. This is how the character is made to look scary even though his hands and his head are his only frightening features. Secondly, Dracula’s shadow plays an important role (e.g. 79:51) as it is always the prelude to the deadly bite and raises suspense in the viewer. This is symbolically and artistically shown when the shadow of Dracula’s hand looks as if it was taking out Nina’s heart (80:27) just before he drinks her blood.
2.2. Phantom (1979)
In Phantom, Herzog has a different technique of highlighting important aspects from the one Murnau uses in his movie. Instead of using different lighting as extensively, he mainly highlights features through colour. Even before having analysed the colours in the movie, one thing is striking: the overall atmosphere is much less dark and scary than in Symphonie because the frames are not as dark, having all the colours in them. In addition to the uplifting effect of the colours, they also convey information that is hard to transmit by means of black and white frames. At the beginning, for example, when Harker walks to work, the trees that line the canal are all bright green (5:38). This tells the viewer that the time of the year must be late spring, knowing that trees are green in spring and summer but seeing people that are dressed in a fashion that shows it is still cold outside.
When Renfield is introduced (6:08) he looks a lot less scary than in Symphonie. He is less illuminated than in the other movie and is therefore not as heavily shaded. Also, when he tells Harker about the job, the lighting does not cast his shadow on him (6:35), so that the danger does not feel as imminent as in Symphonie. That Renfield looks smaller than Harker in this frame is also a difference, which makes him look even less scary.