Director: F.W. Murnau
Live Musical Accompiment: Darius Battiwalla
What better way to see in this year’s Halloween than a blood-curdling vampire flick with a live piano/organ accompaniment by Leeds City Organist Darius Battiwalla? F.W. Murnau’s classic 1922 film not only stands the test of time, it has an outright charm and beauty all of its own. Many of the audience may have been familiar with the work but what made such a special night was the improvised performance by Battiwalla.
Right from the start Battiwalla conjured up a sense of foreboding and a truly sinister experience. A magically dark mood firstly performed on the Howard Assembly Room grand piano, then switching to the awesome sound of the electric organ. While the film does not have quite the religious overtones of the Bram Stoker novel that it is ‘loosely’ based on, the organ sounds definitely had a church-like feel. Battiwalla’s inventive improv included low long and deep rumbles that highlighted the darkness and occult action of the film.
Nosferatu’s castle had its own eerie and ghostly leitmotiv with an insistent refrain that was chilling and seriously scary. The female protagonist Ellen, mainly as a love interest, also had her own more gentle theme. While Hutter, the character sent on the mission to arrange a house for the wicked count, also had a special sequence for his feverish dreams.
Back at home, scientists observe the behaviour of carnivorous plants which Battiwalli matched with sharp stabbing pianism, later also used for the vampire’s attacks. The madman obsessed with his ‘master’ had a slow plaintive phrase and the, now pining, Ellen a romantic sequence but also with the general sense of forthcoming doom.
Hutter, now hospitalised, was given an insistently dark accompaniment and the spread of the plague had a slow sombre feel. There was a new motif when the ship transporting Nosferatu is searched and found to be without a surviving soul, the vampire having crept off after feasting on their blood. The soundtrack became more frantic and frenetic along with the plague’s totally disastrous pandemic with crosses on the doors of infected households.
The search for the demonic Nosferatu had a sequence of short stabbing strikes which became even more discordant for the ensuing chase. Then we were back to the dark ominous rumble as we saw Ellen trap the anti-hero which includes the classic shadow on the staircase that has appeared on so many movie posters. The playing reached a peak in both volume and intensity for the attack on Ellen. This then built up to the dawn that sees the death of the murderous monster.
So we were treated to something of a happy ending with the reuniting of Hutter and Ellen and the end of the plague. A magical and spellbinding way to see in Halloween with the marriage made in heaven of Battiwalla’s wondrous improv and Murnau’s fabulous visuals.
Reviewed on 31st October 2021