Much imitated, never equaled, “Nosferatu” (1922), the original vampire film, celebrates its 100th birthday this year. Director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s masterpiece of German Expressionism screens Oct. 27 at the Jane Pickens Theater, which also turns 100 this year, with Jeff Rapsis’s live musical accompaniment.
According to theater records, “Nosferatu” played there during its original release.
“Halloween is when a silent film musician is actually in demand,” says Rapsis, the New Hampshire native known for performing live improvised scores for silent comedies, westerns, dramas and horror films. Rapsis was at the theater in August providing accompaniment for Harold Lloyd’s classic comedy, “Safety Last” (1923).
“Nosferatu,” about Count Orlok (Max Schreck), a vampire that sleeps in a coffin and haunts a castle, is in high demand during the spooky season, along with “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925), starring Lon Chaney.
The “Nosferatu” producers adapted Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, “Dracula.” But since they could not legally obtain the rights, they tried to get around copyright infringement by changing the names and shifting the setting from Transylvania to Germany.
Stoker’s widow still sued and won. A German court in 1925 ordered every copy of the film in the country to be destroyed. “But enough survived for us to be able to see it,” said Rapsis. “It’s one of those great accidents. It’s kind of like a vampire itself coming back from the dead.”
The restored version that audiences will see at the Jane Pickens Theater is “the best available version of many done over the years,” said Rapsis.
“We have restored material in this version, such as color tinting and toning, that were common in the 1920s,” he said. “Blue indicates dawn; a pinky rose color was added to prints to heighten mood. Sometimes, a straight black-andwhite print is missing these tools that were used to create a compelling experience.”
“Nosferatu,” remarkable for Murnau’s sophisticated, experimental visual techniques that are still used today, has long cast a spell on both audiences and artists. Director Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu the Vampyre” (1979) starred German actor and frequent Herzog collaborator Klaus Kinski. Also notable for horror fans is “Shadow of the Vampire” (2000), a fictionalized account of the making of “Nosferatu,” starring John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, a role that earned Dafoe an Oscar nomination.
Rapsis improvises much of what he plays on his own synthesizer piano while the film is unspooling onscreen. “The digital synthesizer accurately reproduces the sound of a small symphony orchestra,” he says.
But there is no sheet music and the score is not planned.
“My method is to do what a theater organist might have done 100 years ago, [which is] work up the music on the fly in real time,” he said. “‘Nosferatu’ is such a familiar film that I’ve done dozens of times over the years, so I’ve developed a suite of ideas that I use to help put a score together, four or five melodies I draw from. But it’s always different because I’m responding to the film and to the audience.”
In rare cases, if a building has a workable theater organ, he’ll use it. “But there are none left in New England,” he said. “It’s unusual to find a well-cared for piano in tune.”
Using inferior instruments is antithetical to the intention of silent film accompaniment. “It’s similar to ballet music; it has the same purpose. It tells a story,” he said.
One of his missions is to dispel any notion that silent films are a “primitive ancestor” to modern movies, and that the integral music is “played with a rinky-dink piano.”
“It’s actually a full-blooded art form,” he said. “These are timeless works of art and, if done correctly, in a theater, on a big screen, with the right music and an audience that’s engaged, it still delivers an experience that no other art form can. It’s a hypnotic experience.
“These films were made to be shown to large groups of people. We are now looking for reasons to have shared experiences, and this art form demands to be experienced as a group. We need that now more than ever.”