Sinister Seven

Sinister Seven: composer Carsten-Stephan Graf von Bothmer

on April 10, 2012 | Leave a comment

[Rue Morgue contributor Moaner T. Lawrence, who is also the voice of our new German Facebook page, Rue Morgue Deutschland, talks silent films, creepy vampires and psychosexual weirdness with composer/pianist Carsten-Stephan Graf von Bothmer. And if you'd rather read the interview in German, Moaner has provided a translation on the RM Deutschland page! Take it away, Moaner...]

F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) was a game-changer. Its very creation provoked a lawsuit from Bram Stoker’s widow that destroyed the film company that made it. It’s one of the most shocking forms of German Expressionist theatre, and it spawned a new – and, some would argue, more realistic – type of vampire: unromantic, unattractive, animalistic and creepy to behold. Finally, the original score, composed by Hans Erdmann, was destroyed in a fire years ago, forcing any new version of the film to be paired with some sort of new soundtrack. Over the years, many have lent their musical interpretations, including James Bernard, Alexis Savelief and Type O Negative. Nosferatu is a dynamic wonder of the gothic world; the film remains the same, but the music changes.

On March 4th, 2012, Nosferatu turned 90. To commemorate this event, famed musician Carsten-Stephan Graf von Bothmer has been touring Germany, performing the score on piano in front of live audiences as the film plays. Mr. Graf took some time out of his schedule to speak with us about his work and his thoughts on the legendary horror film.

You’re a great pianist with many accolades. Why silent film, and why Nosferatu in particular?

The fun lies in the live film music; I make film music and play a concert at the same time. I’ve always wanted to do both because I can let all of my passions flow into it, and this way I don’t have to choose between classic, rock or abstract music. I can connect all of them, which is very good for my soul. The audience regularly reports signs of euphoria or intoxication which are triggered by my music and the immense flood of images.

Silent movies, on their own, take their effect by the queue of pictures, the same way music functions by the queue tones. Non-silent movies affect the brain differently. During a silent movie concert we can soak up 180,000 times more information than during a tone movie. That’s amazing! Artistically, silent movies have an advantage over tone movies. There are emotional expressions which can only be found in a silent movie concert and nowhere else. That fascinates me. Also, live music is always more dramatic than recorded music because you can see the vigor in live music! Nosferatu is one of the most beloved silent films ever made. I composed music for the piano, soprano and choir. This is going to be lots of fun! Just look at the trailer:

YouTube Preview Image

The tour goes from Naila to Uruguay and includes 21 concerts with more than 10,000 seats in Germany alone.

For me, what’s fascinating is the strange, mystical relationship between Ellen and the Vampire. When we get to the scene where it’s about who reaches England first, she is waiting for him at the beach. Our vampire is almost shy when Ellen wants to give herself to him. It’s a fantastic expression of the sexual connotations and it’s even a way to deal with the war in the movie.

But for me it is not just about Nosferatu. So far, I have given life to more than 500 silent films for over 50,000 guests. It’s about silent film. Silent film is alive!

A great deal of Hans Erdmann’s original score for the film has been lost and either reconstructed or reinterpreted. For your performances, are you trying to follow Erdmann’s score as closely as possible or do you think you’ll be improvising more often?

No, I always compose my own music, usually for two reasons: first, during the era of silent film, every musician composed their own music and therefore always interpreted the movie in a new way. Also, the music that was originally used doesn’t really play a role anymore. Second, at this point, we have 90 years of film music history in between. So, why shouldn’t we act on that? And apart from that, the audience loves my music, because it totally pulls the people into the movie.

How much room is there for improvisation in a live performance such as this? Do you find that you play off audience reaction on a typical night? Is there a back and forth between yourself and the viewers in any sense?

I’m happy you’ve asked about this. The live performance is really pretty alive. It’s hard to explain. Take speaking, for example: we can’t exactly pre-formulate our sentences. We respond according to the conversation. It’s comparable with silent movie music: I get strongly connected with the movie and the music. Then I try to forget everything else and create the music on the stage all over again as the movie is happening. I call this “Live Composition.” Nothing is random, but also, almost nothing predetermined. This implies great risks for me, but is received by the audience as something very authentic.

In truth, I hardly play anything a second time. All books and tutorials about movie composition try to answer the question, which music fits the film? In school, I wrote in my thesis that it is not about which music fits the film. The question is, which music fits the audience? You are the first to realize this, too. That is why, in the analysis of my film music it is not about, what is he going to do in which scene? That’s totally secondary! It is about when you ask yourself, as a member of the audience, what happens in me, when I hear the movie with Bothmer’s music? This approach is substantial in my music: the audience is thrown back onto themselves, perhaps even dealing with underlying elements in their own lives.

Do you feel that when scoring Nosferatu, it’s important to stay timeless, to modernize or to find some sort of middle ground?

I’ve dealt with Nosferatu for years, and it’s like a good friend: if you know the “real” Nosferatu, you are free to do whatever you like. However, you want the audience to experience the movie all the way, without the distance of time. What is a crime thriller, if I say afterwards, “Interesting, that they were able to do back then”? My audience says, “That was exciting!” That has something to do with updating, but not entirely. My aim is about the audience experiencing Nosferatu in an immediate sense.

Nosferatu is a prime example of German Expressionism. How do you feel that aesthetic translates musically? Are there some key musical elements to the style?

For Nosferatu I have my own interpretation. Another interpretation of Nosferatu by Stephan from Bothmer!

The shadow of the vampire is cast over the movie, after the young Hutter gives his fiancée a foreboding kiss. He’s not indicative of his sexuality and it’s not hard to fathom the idea that Count Orlok is an alter-ego for Hutter. It’s about one person whose soul is split between two personalities: one is catching up with the erotic wants of the other. What was pushed aside back then comes, scarily sometimes, back forward. On this level of interpretation, you could ask: If two characters in the movie are represented by one person, then why not all three main characters? It follows then that even Ellen would be a piece of the same soul: Hutter is staying the ‘id’ persona according to Freud’s model. Ellen is Hutter’s Fatima – his female side. The movie would then read as follows: Hutter is having a conflict with his dominant female side, which he is scared of exploring. To avoid falling apart, Hutter creates an alter-ego, the vampire.

There’s also a mystical connection between Ellen and Orlok. When Orlok gets closer to Hutter at night, Ellen wakes up and screams all the way from England. As if he had heard her call, Count Orlok turns around, not Hutter. In the race, it’s about who is getting to Wisborg and Ellen is first, she is waiting for “him” – Hutter – at the beach. But the ship with Orlok arrives instead. Hutter is travelling by horse. Orlok ultimately loses the competition, but at the end, gets closer to Ellen and ‘connects’ with her. If we interpret this as the soul reconnecting to its feminine side, there is no more need to split up into three personalities. Orlok and Ellen disappear. The deaths which take place are merely a symbol of change. Hutter remains has integrated his alter ego and his Fatima. He can move on with his life. So we do, in fact, have a happy end.

Do you have any favorites among today’s composers with regard to the horror genre?

When I was a teen I was very scared by Pink Floyd’s “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict.” Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” is also unbelievable. It is one of my favourite pieces. The middle is really scary.

If you could re-score any other horror film, what would it be and why?

I already made music for a lot of horror movies. Caligari, Edgar Allan Poe’s Scary Tales and Oracle’s Hands just to name a few. For a musician there is great space for interpretation: with my music a new movie is born out the original. I think it’s an enormous responsibility.


Be sure to ‘like’ Rue Morgue Deutschland for news and ruminations on the German horror scene. And if you can’t find Rue Morgue on stands in your hometown, you can subscribe digitally. We even have a new Android app, through which you can get the latest issue for zero dollars and nothing cents. Yep, it’s free!

Tags: Carsten-Stephan Graf von Bothmer, nosferatu, silent film, silent horror movies

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>