If you’ve ever watched a movie in your life, you know how important the soundtrack is. It has the ability to set the tone for a certain scene, it can enhance the atmosphere, and it’s always just nice to hear some nice music. So you would probably be pretty disgruntled when the soundtrack of a movie just plain sucks. It’s distracting, annoying, and for some people, it can ruin the whole scene, or even the whole movie.
Music is even more important in silent films. I have seen my fair share of silent films, and let me tell you, it is not good when the music is comprised solely of clunky organ music. I have watched one such version of The Cabinet of Doctor Calligari in which the music was so off-putting that I could not pay attention to the story and alas, the movie was ruined for me. There is no way of knowing what the music is going to be like for a silent film, since there are many versions of the same film floating around, but with different music.
Thus, when I walked into the Tsai Auditorium last Thursday to watch Nosferatu being played with live music from the Alloy Orchestra, naturally I became excited. The event, hosted by the College of Arts and Science’s Core Curriculum Department was bound to be a blast. Silent film? Live accompaniment? Awesome.
The Alloy Orchestra were fantastic at their job. Composed of Terry Donahue, Ken Winokur and Roger Miller, they played a impressive variety of instruments. At one point they broke out an accordion and even a musical saw! The trio also managed to created a score that fit the mood and tone of the movie, knowing exactly when to be creepy and when to be melodious. One highlight of the score was the beautiful theme they played whenever Ellen was on the screen – I find myself still humming it sometimes.
As for Nosferatu itself: it still has the ability to scare and entertain all. The 1922 horror film, directed by F.W. Murnau, is actually an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It concerns the story of Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), who is sent to Transylvania by his boss to visit a client called Count Orlok (Max Schreck) about a possible real estate sale. Unaware that his client is a vampire, Hutter sells him the house across the street from his own place of residence. The rest of the film follows Hutter’s realization that Orlok is actually Nosferatu, and that he has set his eyes on his wife, Ellen (Greta Schröder), or more specifically, “her beautiful neck”.
One of the creepiest scenes in the whole movie was when Nosferatu was standing in the doorway of Hutter’s hotel room (see picture on the left for visual proof of how creepy he is). The orchestra continually used a very unnerving scratching sound – made by the pulling of a drumstick up and down a steel box – to cue the arrival of Nosferatu. If it freaked me out, just think of what it did to the audiences back in 1922!
Visually, the film is a staple of German Expressionism, with interesting visuals, innovative camera shots and angles, and generally over the top, nay, bad acting. Despite that, it was one of the very first vampire horror films, and definitely worth a look, if only for cinematic-history purposes.
The Alloy Orchestra, who has been playing scores for silent films for twenty years, got their start at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, after getting the chance to score the music for a copy of Metropolis in the mid-80s, according to Mr. Donohue. When asked how they come up with the film scores, Mr Donohue jokingly said that they “do take the older film scores into account, but [they] don’t want to be tainted by their imperfections.” In fact, he says that they “just turn [the film] on and start playing along.”
Impressive, isn’t it? If you ever find yourself with nothing to do, watching a silent film with the Alloy Orchestra accompanying is not a bad way to spend an evening.
For more information about the Alloy Orchestra, and their tour dates, click here.