The Long Shadow of Nosferatu

Tutor George Fleeton explains the eternal appeal of the vampire, and looks forward to a showing in the Ulster Hall

Books, cinema and television have given us a rich offering of imaginary vampires through the ages. The last decades in particular have seen a rising fascination with the genre, with the enormous and wide ranging popularity of movies and series like Interview with the Vampire, True Blood, Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Being Human, The Vampire Diaries - the list goes on.

At last, the patriarch of them all, FW Murnau's Nosferatu, will creep upon an Ulster screen for the first time since it was made in 1921, accompanied by the Ulster Hall's Mulholland Grand Organ and with an introduction by George Fleeton, tutor of opera and cinema at Queen's University. So, why are people of all ages equally fearful and fascinated by vampires?

'The vampire is as old as legend itself, but with his novel Dracula Bram Stoker pointed it all in a new direction in the late 19th century, right at the birth of the cinema and the theories of Freud and Jung,' Fleeton explains. 'Folded into it is a heady mix of Victorian sexual repression, virgin sacrifice, the world of our unconscious and imagination, dreams and nightmares, the undead, plague and contagion, blood as the elusive elixir of youth.'

The vampire film is now one of cinema's evergreen film genres, but it's not to everyone's taste. Why people should flock to the Ulster Hall this coming Tuesday evening, even if they have no affinity with the bloody antics of Buffy and True Blood?

'Nosferatu is a fantasy film first, horror second,' says Fleeton. 'By 1922 storytelling in silent film had technically and artisticlly reached its zenith. Some of the best and most satisfying films ever made come from the 1920s and certainly nothing made in this century comes near.

'The highest values in film history, the most imaginative approaches to defining cinema's aspirations to high art form are the domain of the silent cinema between 1905 and 1930. Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens is the perfect example of this.'

Where vampires were once the villainous figures of horror, in modern times they have become sex objects, the tragic heroes to be redeemed by damsels no longer in distress. Fleeton has a theory about this strange change in fortunes. 'It is an effect of the imperative in box-office cinema to present us with the unattainable perfections of the lives and times of the Hollywood star and the studio system - the irreality of cinema, the pedestal on which it sits above us, looking down at us mere mortals gasping for 90 minutes of escapism.

'Few of us ever reflect on the immense extent to which our lives and social interractions have been shaped by 115 years of moving images on a large screen in a dark room, which is as much womb as tomb.'

Next to the demi-gods created by Hollywood, Nosferatu sticks out like a sore thumb, though. Perhaps apart from Bela Lugosi's Dracula portrayal, the bald-headed, rodent-like Nosferatu is the most iconic of vampire images, but much more primal and frightening. His story is not one of love, but of fear, and it reflects on the time in which it was created.

'Between Germany's humiliating defeat in the First World War and Hitler's rise to power in 1933 the Weimar Republic was volatile, insecure, given to excesses and extremes. In these so-called Golden Twenties,  Surrealism and Expressionism were the norm in the arts and culture.

'They yielded fragmented and disturbing images of reality in an attempt to exteriorise internal emotional turmoil and to exorcise darker forces within the humiliated and vindictive German soul. These were the themes in literature, theatre, song and in films like Dr Caligari, Metropolis, Pandora's Box and The Blue Angel, which indirectly prepared the ground for Nazism.'

The film had a chequered career. It was made by people who had more artistic ambition than business sense. What happened with the film after its 1922 Berlin premiere?

'Stoker's text was 'plagiarised' by Murnau, and his producers and writers, hence the studied lack of reference to the chararacters, locales and plot points of the original novel. Stoker's widow, financially dependent on the royalties of her late husband's work, discovered the existence of the film by accident and sued the production company for copyright infringements. She won, and insisted that the negative and all prints be destroyed.'

Luckily for us, some copies and perhaps the negatives were spirited away, and the movie continued to find an audience, first in cinephile film clubs, later on video by horror buffs. Long out of copyright, Nosferatu can be downloaded for free online.

'Television, DVD and downloads all literally diminish the scale and the canvas for which great films are designed,' argues Fleeton. 'But there is no substitute for the biggest screen and the darkest room available.

'Our encounters with good films should be without distractions. They crave our undivided attention, and give us the carthartic experience of being part of an electrified audience. The beautiful complexities of Nosferatu can best be appreciated by going out to meet it, and the Mulholland Grand Organ, on Tuesday night!'

After having lived on a diet of cinematic crumbs for decades, with only the QFT providing some proper nourishment, can we expect more silent greats in the Ulster Hall?

'Only if this Nosferatu event is an unqualified success, and audience response is overwhelmingly favourable - if 600 people will stand and cheer and applaud and shout for more at the end, then reluctantly leave the Ulster Hall with this unprecedented night out resonating in their heads for weeks afterwards.'

Nosferatu, a Special Movie Screening with live score performed on the Mulholland Grand Organ, takes place in the Ulster Hall on Tuesday, February 8 at 7.30 pm. Tickets through the Ulster Hall box Office: www.ulsterhall.co.uk or 028 9033 4455.

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