Review / Jozef van Wissem – Nosferatu: The Call of the Deathbird

2022 marks the centenary of Nosferatu, the German expressionist silent horror film and unauthorised adaptation of Irish writer Bram Stoker’s 1897 epistolary novel Dracula, which in turn is suggested by scholars to have been inspired by the infamously cruel and sadistic Wallachian prince Vlad the Impaler. The film was directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, while Albin Grau, the architect and occultist, served as production designer and was responsible for much of the aesthetics and stylistic vision. The accompanying music performed at the earliest screenings of the film was composed by Hans Erdmann, yet little remains of the original score. Alternative scores have since been written by different composers, most notably an early “reconstruction” by Berndt Heller, and a 1997 original by James Bernard of Hammer Horror fame.

    For the film’s centenary, Jozef van Wissem, the Dutch avant-garde composer and lutist was commissioned by La Cinémathèque Française to write and perform a score for the presentation of the restored version. The night was a huge success and although Van Wissem had not planned on any further performances, after so many requests to, he obliged. Since the turn of the century, he has recorded prolifically and striven to revive the lute as an instrument of relevance and modern versatility. A skilled and highly experimental musician, for his solo recordings and his long-time collaborations with cult director Jim Jarmusch, Wissem has received considerable acclaim, winning the Cannes Soundtrack Award in 2013 for Jarmusch’s offbeat and critically successful horror dramedy, Only Lovers Left Alive. At first, Van Wissem’s accompaniments for the Nosferatu anniversary screenings were mostly improvised but began to take a more concrete form with subsequent performances. For his newest studio release, Van Wissem has condensed these performances into an album-length format, under the name of Nosferatu: The Call of the Deathbird

    ‘Act 1’ opens with a full-bodied and mournful solo lute passage, almost bringing to mind a medieval epic in the sparse style of a Sergio Leone Western. The clarity and singleness of this opening piece has a mysterious and hypnotising quality to it, setting the scene to a timeless tale known by so many

    ‘Act 2’, with the lute still at centre stage, there are glints of hope scattered amongst the scales used here, however there is an untenable anxiety, especially when in the background we are introduced to a recurring theme: mutated samples of birdsong. “I found an old 7-inch single with recordings of extinct birds on a market in Rotterdam,” explained Wissem. The surreal drones and bird sounds that provide the backing to the lute passage here speak of the portent of dread and the lurching unknown. 

    ‘Act 3’ takes the score in a fresh direction, introducing building percussion, a simple bassline and a neo-psychedelic mist of warbled and layered electric guitars; there’s a certain complacency to the repetition here, but again there are the notes that veer away to create more sinister intervals, keeping the listener in an untrustworthy sense of security, always looking at the blade of darkness made by a door ever so ajar.

    ‘Act 4’ pulls us further in with distortion, with weighty raga-like guitar drones and the deathbirds circling the grey sky above; there is such stark contrapuntalism here: the drowning yet meditative walls of distortion dragging you into the earth, and yet the unavoidable apprehension of the dark waves of noise panning the stereo spectrum like auditory hallucinosis.

    With the deathbirds still in slow revolution, the minimal and soulful lute returns in ‘Intro Act 5’ briefly before ‘Act 5’ itself which breaks in instantly with blackened guitar twangs; scooped mids and feedback; we are engulfed by these sounds, ceaseless drones reminiscent of Sunn O))) or early Earth. The changes and alterations develop so subtly and incrementally that we hardly aware of our being buried alive, perhaps in blissful ignorance, the madness having taken its full hold, only until again, towards the end of this 18-minute monochrome landscape do the shrieks and cries of the deathbirds return for one last time, spiralling still after the last wails of feedback are spent. A final act that is cathartic as it is punishing, and one that sees the corruption of the city and its people, the eventual death of Orlok and the end of his reign. 

The success of Nosferatu upon its release in 1922 and its colossal impact and influence on horror cinema and the vampire genre in all mediums has created a legacy that, not unlike the many over-saturated franchises of today, is so vast as to leave the essence of the original almost obscured and impossible to view outside the lens of a century of pop-culture. Since the film’s release, humanity has suffered yet overcome a century of horror, both fictional and real. The endless tragedies of the 20th century and early 21st—the wars and genocides; the economic depressions and developing world deprivations; the unspeakable crimes on inconceivable scales—multi-generational grief and trauma that has shell-shocked and shaped us, providing backdrops and setting scenes for the horrors summoned by our favourite writers, artists, directors and musicians. A fascinating thing about Nosferatu is that its original release came four years after the 1918 Spanish Influenza Epidemic. Count Orlok (Nosferatu) was in no subtle way symbolic of plague and disease, filling the city with rats upon his arrival and infesting its citizens with madness and hysteria. The film’s centenary comes also in the midst of one of history’s deadliest pandemics, COVID-19.

The Call of the Deathbird is perhaps the sound of history repeating itself. Van Wissem’s soundtrack is at once a celebration of how far we’ve come, and a lament for all that we lost on the way.

Nosferatu: The Call of the Deathbird will be out October 31st and can be pre-ordered here.

Words: Rory Hughes

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