Not So Silent Cinema

Nosferatu’s lusty musical transfusion

Not So Silent Cinema | 215.413.1318.
Not-So-Silent-Cinema on tour
FringeArts Theater, Philadelphia

Even though it’s hard to imagine that F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film, “Nosferatu” actually scared audiences, it still remains a classic of the horror genre. Most of the thrills now are in its German expressionist cinema language which influenced generations of filmmakers. Fans filled the FringeArts Theater for a Halloween weekend screening of the movie with live music accompaniment by the Philly based cine- band clarinetist Larry Goldfinger, violinist Carlos Santiago, bassist Chris Coyle and pianist-composer Brendan Cooney- proponents of Klezmer, Balkan, jazz, tango, and classical genres.

There is little blood onscreen in Nosferatu, but there plenty of musical blood gushing in this music and which NSSC describes as tapestry of Klezmer motifs, Gypsy grooves, avant-garde textures, and classic horror effects. Composer Cooney does not rely on pastiche or mere stylizations in the score, it is organic, inventive and otherwise grabs you by the throat.

Max Shreck became an international star for his expressionist vampire, lurking around his castle and especially sinister aboard the ship as he spiders around the deck. He’s so defanged as a film monster this audience found his menace laughable even as stands at a window with his clawed hands pressing against the glass and bulging eyes fixed on his intended victim Nina.

Murnau lifted the basic story from Bram Stoker’s Dracula without permission, scrambling the plot and goofily changing the character names- i.e. Dracula becoming Count Orlok in the initial release. But Stoker’s widow successfully sued for infringement and all of the prints of the film were supposed to be destroyed. But some copies survived enough for it to become an international hit, even in its1929 US release when talkies killing the silent film era.

The updated print that Not So Silent Cinema uses has new dialogue screens with all of the Stoker’s original characters back in place- Jonathan Harker, Nina, Renfield, Van Helsing and the spooked Transylvanians. But, cinematically, this is indelibly Murnau’s visual language. Filmed on location in Transylvania which was an innovative in itself for that time, it remains exemplar of German film expressionist aesthetic.

Only fragments of Nosferatu’s original music charts survived and the film has been re-scored many times since. Many people are now most familiar with the music on the KINO Video DVD release from 2002 and with music by Gerald Houbette and performed by the German band Art Zoyd. That score is effectively creepy in spots, but for the most part it strikes as a looped in afterthought. Cooney’s score is so much more musically engaging, witty and a musical thriller on its own.

Schrecht gets huge laughs as he lugged his own coffin through the village square after he kills everyone aboard on clipper ship he traveled on. All Dracula stories have a psychosexual angle and there is even a hint of homoeroticism in the scene when Dracula pounces on Harker’s thumb after he cuts it with a breadknife and as Harker recoils as if he is being sexually attacked. Meanwhile Harker’s wife Nina actually may be under Dracula’s spell, but she eventually vaporizes him and Cooney gives her a haunted existential piano theme ala Satie.

Cooney’s liberated piano technique entrances throughout the score. When Harker travels on the Phantom carriage to castle Dracula, Cooney even pulls out his own violin from under the keyboard for a duet section with Santiago for an effect that sounds like they are playing modernist string lines in reverse. Goldfinger’s clarinet and Santiago’s violin voicings are equally inventive and Coyle’s percussive double bass line never bottom out. This atmospherics of this score are deliberate and much more musically rich than the current trend of engulfing cinematic scores. This definitely has killer musical fangs.

Philadelphia ,
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.