Thursday, August 25, 2011

L'Inferno and Nosferatu

A still from L'Inferno

The horror, the horror

Thanks to the generosity of the Goethe Institut, the Japan Foundation, The Instituto Cervantes, the Embassies of Italy and Greece, The 5th International Silent Film Festival will unfold from August 26 to 28 at the Shang Cineplex 2, in Shangri-La Plaza Mandaluyong, and oh, wonders of wonders--at least two of them are horror films (well, one indisputably is; so is the other if you stretch definitions a little).

The rarer creature (and borderline horror) is Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe de Liguoro's L'Inferno (1911). This largely forgotten silent was a huge hit at the time of its release, with plenty of applause during and after its premiere screening in Naples (the film went on to gross over two million dollars in the United States). Today it stands as a curiosity, at sixty-eight minutes the first Italian feature ever made.

Mind you, we're not talking D.W. Griffith here; the intertitles do most of the narrative heavy-lifting, giving us a clunky ten minutes of exposition explaining what's going on in Dante's life, who Beatrice is, why he's wandering a desolate wood, threatened by various largely symbolic predators. When Virgil finally takes him under wing (at the behest of his beloved Beatrice, who descends upon the great classical poet like the Good Witch of the North) he is informed that the path to salvation leads first through the depths of hell--you have to know the worst in human nature, Virgil seems to say, before you start trying for the best. It's not going to be an easy path; “abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” Dante is warned before entering. The line still retains a chill, even in this film, even now.

The film is basically a series of tableaus of increasing levels of complexity, and horror, though some victims are given background stories, to flesh out our sympathy for them (possibly the most poignant involves the Count Ugolino and his family, who are tormented by the Archbishop Ruggieri). Some of the effects are still striking; the forced perspective shots of Minos, of Pluto, and especially Antaeus--lowering Virgil and Dante on the palm of his hand--is well done. Effects shots of flying sinners stutter and shake as if pushed by palsied fingers, but nevertheless retain some kind of power--they are unmistakably human bodies, they are indisputably naked and vulnerable, and they tumble helplessly across the damned skies.

Some of the simpler images still have the power to shock, or impress--I'm thinking of Dante ripping a tuft of hair off one trapped sinner, of another gnawing on a fellow sufferer's skull, of Dante and Virgil walking out of the darkness (the mouth of a cave) and into the light. Satan's ultimate appearance is the most elaborate of effects shots, and while not exactly horrific, he does have some of the scale and grandeur of Dante's original.

Of the print I have this to say: the black-and-white graininess and visual crudity only serve to increase the film's power. Not only does black-and-white improve the ancient special effects, but you sometimes get the impression you're watching video footage from a camera smuggled into Hell--there's an eerie sense of stolen imagery, of footage shot without permission (which helps explain the obscurity and difficult lighting, one imagines).

F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu suffers from the terrifying burden of its reputation as “the most frightening film ever made.” Perhaps not at first glance, but today's definition of frightening is in my book far too limiting and literal, if not downright dull. What would it take to make one jump out of one's seat? A serial killer leaping out of a dark corner p'raps, complete with screechy music and a family-size pizza's worth of tomato sauce and toppings...but then a dog jumping at the big screen might suffice, and so (in one of its earliest incarnation) might a bus screeching to a halt (see Cat People (1942), Jacques Tourneur's most famous if not necessarily finest film). Nosferatu is horror of a different kind; it drips its venom quietly, without untoward fuss, until one is overwhelmed--as designed by Murnau, it's a silent, remorseless killer of a film.

Take the Carpathian mountains, where Count Orlock (Max Schreck) lives--a tortured landscape, forever straining upwards or dropping precipitously from a great height. The castle is a massive, mute fortification, all thick, brooding walls and gigantic doors that dwarf their human inhabitants.

Orlock himself is a fantastic creation, a creature Murnau must have imagined clinging to the vertical rock faces of this castle among these mountains--something reptilian and pale, with huge eyes (the better to see with, in the dark) and clawed hands for a tight grip. The two gigantic fangs sticking out at front instead of at each side seem laughably grotesque at first, but it's Murnau giving the creature rodent features, not just reptilian--as Schreck plays him, the laughter tends to die gurgling its way out one's throat.

Midway through the film, separating Orlock's world from our own is a sea voyage, possibly Murnau's most lyrical horror sequence. Orlock has front-loaded the ship with box upon box of rat-infested earth (at one point we see text explaining that the “nosferatu's” strength comes from the earth he carries with him). The rats take over, the crew disappears one by one; the ship takes on the aspect of a haunted vessel (think the Mary Celeste, or the Flying Dutchman). When the ship glides into view in Wisborg ('Bremen' in some translations), it's a ghastly thing, a black presence that slips uninvited into the town's rational sensibility like spilled ink into a sheet of white paper.

It's worth noting that the scenes of Ellen (Greta Schroder) pining for Count Orlock so many leagues away feel like a parody of love--of two people yearning for each other's embrace, albeit for more bizarre reasons (the one-way transmission not of semen, but of blood; not for procreation, but for a perversion of immortality). Again, here the power isn't so much in the ability to startle or shock, but to subvert ordinary conventions, upend notions of human relationship. Ellen desires not Orlock's love but his voracious hunger; Orlock desires not Ellen's admiration but her long, beautiful neck, with all the veins pulsing within.

The rats and the plague they carry with them are the invention of screenwriter Henrik Galeen, and Murnau runs with the idea as far as he can. The images of rats, and of corpses--of vertical beings rendered horizontal by invisible presences--subvert stable, sober Wisborg; Murnau has a line of coffins making their way up the town's geometrically precise, neatly laid-out street, a burlesque of the town's evacuation procedures. The rats--and more, the plague--take Bram Stoker's syphilis metaphor (with its anxieties involving human sexuality) a step further, and evoke older, more powerful fears: of bubonic plague, of death on a massive scale. The world with its level ground and modest buildings is being upended, brought closer in line with Orlock's world of high mountains and deep ravines; the balance of nature and of the world in general is slowly being destroyed.

I actually like Murnau's resolution better than Stoker's--in the novel Dracula (of which Murnau's film is a blatant rip-off) we have an extended chase that ends in a pitched battle, very physical, not very evocative; in Murnau's film the balance is corrected by a sacrifice of the highest kind, by one whose purity is in stark contrast with the corruption at the heart of the story. A great horror film? I think so; and I'm willing to fight fang and claw with anyone to prove my case.

First published in Businessworld 8.25.11

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