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Nosferatu: The Silver Screen’s first Dracula Resurrected for the Digital Age

Friedrich Wilheim Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror) is widely acknowledged not just as a classic of German Expressionist cinema but also as the silver screen’s first interpretation of Bram Stoker’s genre-defining vampire classic Dracula (1897). Now it’s common knowledge that despite screenwriter Henrik Galeen’s efforts to simplify the novel’s narrative and change the character’s names, he still didn’t manage to obscure enough of Dracula’s plot for the film’s production company (Prana Film) to avoid being pursued through the courts by Stoker’s Estate for copyright infringement where the judges ordered that all copies of this unauthorised film adaptation should be destroyed shortly after its release in 1922. Fortunately thanks to the film’s already widespread distribution, a handful of prints survived, unlike much of Murnau’s works (only 12 of the director’s films made between 1919 and 1931 survive in their entirety) allowing this iconic piece of horror cinema to be appreciated as the true classic that it is.

Now 96 years after its theatrical debut Nosferatu has undergone a digital makeover to restore the movie to its former glory. The restoration work was undertaken by filmmaker Mark Rance and is just about to be presented to select London audience at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies.

I caught up with Mark just before the show to find out more about how he has preserved Murnau’s vision for the digital age, but first I need to find out more about Mark himself:

“I started as a filmmaker in the late 1970s.’ Mark said, ‘I worked primarily on documentaries and American independent features. Then I moved to Los Angeles in 1990 where I worked for Criterion for many years. With the advent of DVD, I worked for all the Hollywood studios producing DVDs until about 2005 when I moved to England where I started up a company to restore primarily independent features and art films or what you might call avant-garde films. The company also attempts to distribute the films it restores.’’

So how did Mark get involved in the restoration of Nosferatu and what is it that he thinks makes it such an important movie? Mark continued: “Quite simply Nosferatu was brought to me by a home-video company seeking to create a better copy for a new DVD edition. There are many reasons Nosferatu is an important film, not least of which is that it is a film by Murnau. He was not only a great director, but a pioneering filmmaker. His films exhibit a wide range of styles and technical innovations. One of the things that distinguish his work is that each and every one of his films has its own emotional impact on the audience.’’

Every film restoration job throws up a unique set of problems. Mark explained the problems he faced with Nosferatu’s source material. “The most difficult aspects of restoring this film were actually handled by the restoration group in Bologna Italy, Cineteca di Bologna. The film had fallen into the cracks of history. There were no single copies of the film left intact. The version we were presented with to restore was reconstructed from many different film sources. So I would have to say the most important work was actually that reconstruction of the original film.’’ 

“We were given  an High Definition telecine  of the existing reconstruction. Our job was to primarily stabilize and clean the image to the best of our abilities. We dealt with other issues, for example, the errors made in the telecine and optical printing processes. And we had to deal with the differences between the elements used in the reconstruction. So, for example, there would be a single shot where the first part of the shot is from a 16mm print and the second part of the shot was from a 35mm element. Of course on screen this would look different and the only thing separating them would be a splice. We tried to minimize that difference.’’

“The restored version is a digital copy, not a print. And I believe that what is clearly evident is that the stability of the image is vastly improved. The framing is as correct as we can make it. And the differences between the variety of elements that were used to re-create the entire film are minimized. So, the viewer’s experience should be of the film as a continuous whole rather than as a quilt of different types of film elements. Our goal was to create more of an experience of Nosferatu as a film and less as an artefact.’”

With the restoration of Nosferatu completed Mark has been busy working on more projects: “I just completed scanning, restoring, grading and remastering Jack Hazan’s 1972 documentary about David Hockney, A Bigger Splash, and then my partner, Louis Black, and I have just released a Blu-ray of our restoration Tobe Hooper‘s first feature, Eggshells (1969). We are also planning releases of two features by a prominent independent filmmaker from Texas, Eagle Pennell. Eagle’s Last Night at the Alamo (1983) and The Whole Shooting Match (1979) have been restored and we hope to release those on Blu-ray later this year or in 2019.’’

Mark’s presentation to the Miskatonic Institute is going to examine the complex issues surrounding the digital restoration of analog film sources and the subjective opinions that can influence what the restored output should look like. Is it possible for a digital restoration to replicate the original projected image and is that digital image a valid preservation of a photochemical process? Whatever your opinion its going to be fascinating finding out.

About Simon Ball

Simon is a child of the 1960s, his marmie liked Affred Hitchcock and he grew up on a diet of classic Dr Who, Hammer Horror, Heavy Metal, Goth and Spaghetti Westerns. He cut his journalistic teeth in 1976 interviewing the bass player from an unknown band called Motorhead, now what was his name? Since then he wasted several years in corporate PR, edited heritage products and got an MA in the History of Science before he fell off the truck and returned to the world he loves best. Simon is Editor in Chief of the Horror Hothouse website and a regular contributor to the Spooky Isles.

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