It’s no secret how much I admire the work of the German film director, F. W. Murnau (1888 – 1931). The great cinema historian Lotte Eisner’s 1964 account of his work, life and death, Murnau, is among the books permanently on my bedside table. I’ve given up counting how many times I’ve read it.
Nosferatu: a symphony of horrors (1922) is a film that’s been embedded in my psyche for so long that I can’t remember a time when it hasn’t been an essential part of my creative resources. As a young choreographer and later a director and stage designer, the films of Murnau were a constant and steady influence on my work, and that continued when I became an artist. It’s not even a question of compositional borrowing – as Murnau himself freely plundered the works of the painter Caspar David Friedrich to fuel his cinematic visions – but more a case of carrying a tune in my head, as if Murnau wrote the music that I move to.
Murnau and his producer Albin Grau got caught out in the act of theft when Grau’s production company lost the case brought against it by the widow of Bram Stoker for infringement of copyright, Nosferatu‘s plot having been all too obviously lifted from her late husband’s vampire novel, Dracula. First she demanded recompense, and when it became clear that the film, which had not been financially successful for its producer, was not to be milked for cash, then she embarked on a mission to have all copies of it destroyed, a goal that she would have accomplished had a very few not escaped her reach. (She had just sold the rights of the novel to Universal Pictures, who were about to film it with Bela Lugosi in the title role, and she was driven in her determination to wipe Nosferatu off the face of the earth so that it wouldn’t become any impediment to the deal.)
From the beginning of the Hansel & Gretel project, when I was making the illustrations for the Random Spectacular picturebook of the fairytale, I had Nosferatu in the back of my mind. The vampire Count Orlock’s appearance was conceived by the film’s producer/designer Grau, who had founded his production company with the express purpose of making a film of Dracula, albeit without permission from the author’s estate. There seems to be no record of who created and applied the Orlock make-up, and it’s likely that in the custom of that time, Max Schreck, an experienced stage actor, would have been responsible for his own, though with a lot of input from Grau and Murnau.
My Hansel & Gretel witch, with her pate rendered skull-like by a close-fitting cap, and with her hawkish profile, slender fangs and extended, taloned fingers, riffed on Max Schreck’s appearance in the film. First in the book, and latterly in the stage production, her look was rooted in his.
The landscapes of the stage production were also influenced by the film. The slow pans of the forest I used in the projected sequences, were inspired by both the pine forests of Murnau’s locations and the way he used the camera to shoot them. (There’s one particular – and beautiful – landscape camera pan in Nosferatu, that has a slight juddering quality that looks almost like stop-motion, and I borrowed the effect for several of the filmed Hansel & Gretel scenes.)
The opening shot of the film foregrounds a tower, and I nodded to it in the building-blocks of Hansel & Gretel‘s toy-box.
A detail I’ve always liked in the film is the hyena sequence Murnau was at pains to get, using footage he shot of a zoo specimen to illustrate a reference in the intertitles to werewolves. Although I didn’t make use of a hyena in my stage version of Hansel & Gretel, Simon Armitage made reference to one in his text, using the animal as a metaphor for Hansel’s unending hunger. That was all the encouragement I needed, and my ‘homage’ to Murnau’s werewolf ‘stand-in’ has found its place in the forthcoming published edition of the libretto.
Probably the strangest and most sinister scene in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, is the one I reserved to capture imagery closest in style to the shadow world of Nosferatu. Using the specially painted and furnished doll’s house I provided for the scene, cameraman, Pete Telfer eerily – though beautifully – lit the model and then created a combination of unnervingly jerky zooms and insidiously gliding panning shots of its interior. The resulting shadowry is pure ‘Nosferatu’.
To complete the homage to my satisfaction, I added a coffin-like chest as the sole item of furniture in one of the doll’s house rooms, to reference the coffin-in-the-cellar where Count Orlock sleeps away the daylight hours
Of course, no-one in the audience is actually supposed to notice these references to a film most of them won’t even have seen, let alone recognise as being building blocks in my own work. The imagery of Hansel & Gretel is what it is because of the way I assembled the visual aesthetic of the stage production. Everything in it is seen from the children’s perspective, from the clockwork tin chickens that peck at the breadcrumbs Hansel lays as a trail home, to the vintage building blocks and brightly painted toy soldiers that stand in for the chaos of war all around. Everything visual in the production was chosen to support Matthew Kaner’s music and Simon Armitage’s text. The rest is my private game, though one that helped me quarry the character of the piece.
While Nosferatu laid out an iconography of images that film-makers and creatives have drawn on ever since, none have yet matched, or even come close to matching the miasma of dread in which the director drenched his subject matter. That has proved unique and consistently impossible to reproduce. Nosferatu continues to guard its mysteries, and all we can do is take the time to look and wonder at its achievements. There are so many moments in it that I love, though my favourite is unchanging. Borrowing from Bram Stoker’s plot device of transporting his undead Count as ‘cargo’ in the hold of a vessel, Murnau offers the unforgettable sight of the ‘death ship’ transporting Orlock gliding swiftly and silently into Bremen to disgorge its deadly plague of vampire and rats, and for me it’s the most beautiful and potent moment in the history of early cinema.
Vampires can’t beget children, at least not in the orthodox way. Nevertheless, Hansel & Gretel grew out of the fantastic tone poem of Murnau’s film, and that makes them, to a very great extent, Nosferatu’s children.
Photograph courtesy of: