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  • Writer's pictureSouth West Silents

BBC Four: Horror Europa with Mark Gatiss

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

Back in 2010 a three part series produced by BBC Bristol took us back into the world of classic British and Hollywood Horror films. A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss was one of our main highlights for 2010 when it came to film documentaries on British TV, and we are thrilled to see that Mark returns to the screen this week (just in time for Halloween of course) to give us a little bit more horror and gore!

This time however, instead of telling us the stories set in either big Hollywood studios or home-counties British sets, Mark and the team are giving us something…. well…. far more Continental!

Whereas the earlier documentaries focused on English-language films, this time Gatiss crosses the Continent in search of the stories behind the classics of European horror cinema. HORROR EUROPA WITH MARK GATISS gives us the chance to see some films we rarley see and on top of this; we have some classic silent Horror films in there. And a small feature on one of our favourite actors here at Bristol Silents, the incredible Conrad Veidt!!

We are also thrilled that Producer John Das has been able to take some time out and tell us a little about working with Mark again and also the importance of some of the early horror films in which the programme will discuss.

‘More than anything else, it was German expressionism in the wake of World War I that laid the foundations of horror cinema in both Europe and America. And we could think of nowhere better for Mark to begin his celebration of the great German Silents than at the atmospheric Orava castle in Slovakia, the home of Count Orlok in FW Murnau’s pioneering version of the Dracula story, Nosferatu (1922).

Orava Castle dates back to the 13th century, and Mark argues that “the decision to shoot Nosferatu here gives it an authenticity that¹s rarely been matched in any horror picture since, a disorientating sense that the terror, however outlandish it may appear, comes from a real place.”

Mark relished he chance to recreate some famous shots from Murnau’s film. But he also acknowledges the difficulties that many viewers may have seeing Nosferatu today:

“Familiar as we now are with the urbane Draculas of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, it¹s easy to find Max Schreck¹s wide-eyed, hunch-shouldered Orlok crude, and even absurd. But in his utter alien-ness lies his menace ¬nothing about him seems susceptible to human reason or emotion. He¹s a figure who¹s stepped out of a medieval painting of hell, an embodiment of apocalypse intruding into reality.”

Nosferatu nearly became a lost film after Bram Stoker’s widow took legal action for copyright infringement, and a judge ordered all the prints to be destroyed. Mark finds this ironic:

“In many respects, Nosferatu is very different to Dracula. Indeed, if you watch it expecting a straightforward interpretation of Stoker¹s novel, you¹ll be baffled and frustrated. It has rats instead of bats, no-one gets staked or turned into a vampire. To do it justice, you need to see Nosferatu as a work in its own right.”

Travelling on to the Berlin Film Museum, Mark learnt more about perhaps the most influential expressionist film of all – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). It’s famous for its remarkable set design, and museum curator Werner Sudendorf showed us some rarely seen set models made by the film’s designer, Herman Warm, which give a remarkable insight into how the sequences were staged and filmed.

But for Mark, the greatest asset of Caligari is really actor Conrad Veidt, who plays the sleepwalking killer, Cesare. Mark praises the sequence in which Cesare opens his eyes under the command of the sinister Dr Caligari, arguing that it’s one of the finest close-ups in cinema. Veidt’s performance left a huge legacy, says Gatiss:

“Future horror and fantasy creations ranging from Boris Karloff¹s monster in Frankenstein to Johnny Depp¹s Edward Scissorhands would all follow in Conrad Veidt¹s halting footsteps.”

Mark argues that what made Veidt so special “was his talent not just to convey menace, but to articulate ¬ simply through his looks, gestures and expressions ¬ a particular kind of terror.” This caught the spirit of the era, as Germany sought to recover from the physical and mental carnage of the Great War. “Veidt¹s characters are constantly losing control, fighting to hold themselves together in the face of doppelgangers, alter egos, forces they can¹t comprehend. Germany may have been reluctant to confront the trauma of the war in public, but Veidt played out the nation¹s fears on the big screen.”

In Horror Europa we emphasise this point with an extraordinary clip from The Hands of Orlac, a 1924 Austrian production which reunited Veidt with Caligari’s director, Robert Wiene. As the pianist Paul Orlac, struggling to come to terms with the idea that the hands he received in a transplant may have a murderous disposition of their own, Veidt delivers a consummate display of silent, expressionistic acting.

As Mark says, “It¹s one thing to act with your hands and eyes. But to act with your veins as well!”

Our thanks to Producer John Das for his write up and Assistant Producer Matt Thomas for his fantastic on-set stills. Some of us were lucky enough to see the film over the weekend when there was a special screening at the BFI Southbank and we all thought it was great. So don’t forget to tune in! Or catch up on it on the BBC iPlayer



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