Israeli Musician Writes Soundtrack for 1920s German Expressionist Film

Does the fact that Israeli musician Ellyot composed a soundtrack for a German classic have anything to do with the Holocaust?

A scene from the film 'Nosferatu'
Prana Film

Three pairs of hands starred last month in a screening of the 1922 silent film “Nosferatu,” directed by F.W. Murnau. The event, which took place in the Herzliya Cinematheque, included a live performance of a new soundtrack for the German Expressionist classic, composed and played by Ellyot (Sharon Ben Ezer).

The first pair of hands belonged the demonic Count Orlok – Nosferatu – a character based on Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula and the first movie vampire. His terrifying hands, with their long, curved fingernails, are a highly potent visual element in the film, especially when they grab the throat of the person whose precious blood the vampire will suck.

The second pair of hands belongs to Ellen, the beloved wife of the estate agent Thomas Hutter, who travels to Nosferatu’s castle in Transylvania to sell him a house (never imagining that he is thus bringing disaster on himself, on Ellen and on the city they live in). As the documents are being signed, Nosferatu sees a picture of Ellen. Captivated, he brings his powers to bear on her, inducing her to walk in her sleep.

Nosferatu

The third pair of hands weren’t in the movie – they belonged to Ellyot. She sat to the right of the screen, playing a guitar and operating two samplers. Not content merely to press buttons and turn dials, every few minutes she lifted her hands dramatically and controlled the music by means of hand motions.

Her old samplers, she explained afterward, contain technology based on an infrared beam that can produce various effects, and it can even be used as a synthesizer. The technology makes it possible to control the timing with high precision, Ellyot explained, but there was also another reason for its use: dramatic effect. “It looks better and it’s more interesting for the audience,” she noted.

'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari'
Tomer Appelbaum

Ellyot has been composing soundtracks for 15 years, “but ‘Nosferatu’ is the Holy Grail,” she says. “Besides being one of the most beautiful films ever made, the fact that it’s almost a hundred years old only heightens my amazement. And it’s also a film that I find deeply touching.”

Ellyot is not the only Israeli musician to compose a soundtrack for a German Expressionist film. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920) and “Asphalt” (1929), were screened last year at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque with the accompaniment of live soundtracks composed and performed by the flutist Yael Acher, who goes by the name Kat Modiano. An earlier soundtrack for “Caligari” was composed 15 years ago by the electronic duo TaaPet (Binya Reches and Aviad Albert). “Nosferatu,” too, has an additional Israeli-composed soundtrack, created by Ori Dromer and Duralex Sedlex, which was released as an album in 2002.

Though post-World War I Expressionistic cinema was silent, it was also extremely musical. “Instead of words, these filmmakers expressed highly complex ideas by means of pace, editing and lighting,” says Prof. Ofer Ashkenazi from the History Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, author of “A Walk into the Night: Reason and Subjectivity in the Films of the Weimar Republic” (2010, Hebrew). The subtitle of “Nosferatu” is “A Symphony of Horror.” Another film from that era is titled “Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis.”

Ellyot (Sharon Ben Ezer)
Vitali Agronov

The musical beat within the absence of concrete sound is undoubtedly one reason that contemporary musicians are drawn to composing soundtracks for the old movies. “The films themselves are rife with mystery, alienation – certainly when viewed today,” Ashkenazi adds. “That creates another window for musicians to express themselves.”

According to Ori Dromer, composing the soundtrack for “Nosferatu” was intertwined with a subject that preoccupied him and Duralex Sedlex: the memory of the Holocaust. The connection between films such as “Nosferatu” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and the rise of Nazism about a decade later is a topic of historiographic debate. After World War II, under the influence of books such as Siegfried Kracauer’s “From Caligari to Hitler,” the tendency was to see the Expressionist films as manifesting the pathology of the German psyche, of the Germans’ attraction to totalitarianism.

“Today we know that this thesis doesn’t really work,” Prof. Ashkenazi says. Because of the dire economic situation in post-1918 Germany, he explains, the primary market for these films lay outside Germany. “They tried many types of movies and discovered that those of the ‘Caligari’ and ‘Nosferatu’ type drew the biggest audience. People outside Germany, in France, for example, liked the identification of the Germanic with something monstrous, insane. There was a marketing basis to it.”

The Jewish element

From 1925 onward, Ashkenazi adds, when the economic situation in Germany improved and local films were earmarked primarily for the local market, hardly any dark films swarming with monsters were made. The makers of “Caligari” and “Nosferatu” switched to a style called the New Objectivity, whose hallmark was admiration for glittering modernism.

Jews played an important role in the Expressionist film movement, Ashkenazi observes. It’s not clear whether “Nosferatu” director Murnau was Jewish, but the picture’s screenwriter and cinematographer, like all the principal makers of “Caligari,” were Jewish. In contrast to theater or the plastic arts, German cinema of the 1920s was an arena accessible to Eastern European Jews. “Accordingly, the thesis that these films uncover the collective subconscious of the German elite is problematic,” Ashkenazi notes. “If there is a collective subconscious at work here, it belongs to a number of Jewish migrants.”

The Jewish element was a key factor in Ori Dromer’s work with “Nosferatu.” “We didn’t want to do atmospheric music, we wanted to do something active, even subversive,” Dromer recalls. “To rewrite the meaning of the film through the music, to weave a new plot. And it turns out, according to our version, that there’s a love story between the vampire and the woman. When he bites her at the end and sucks her blood, that is the consummation of a love story. And as far as I’m concerned, that vampire – look at his nose – is Jewish.”

An ambivalent attitude toward the vampire also characterizes Ellyot’s version, which will be screened, with her performing the soundtrack, at the Herzliya Cinematheque on April 16. Alongside the overt love story between Hutter and Ellen, Ellyot discerns another love story, possibly one-sided, between Ellen and Nosferatu.

“I became convinced that Nosferatu fell in love with her – I see it as a type of love,” Ellyot says. Her version does not demonize the vampire, and in general, the first half of the soundtrack, which is set around Nosferatu’s castle, does not reflect a satanic monstrousness. “It’s actually not so scary, certainly not for people who see today’s horribly frightening movies,” she adds. “It might even look a little ridiculous. The vampire says to Hutter: what a lovely neck your wife has; which is like ‘Pardon Me, but Your Teeth Are in My Neck’ [the subtitle of Roman Polanski’s 1967 film “The Fearless Vampire Killers”]. My teenaged kids told me, ‘It’s really beautiful, but it’s not scary.’”

But around the middle of the film, the musical tone changes. Upon Nosferatu’s arrival in the harbor, carrying the plague that will kill many of the city’s inhabitants, low, strident basses are heard, with a repetitive techno beat. “This is the frightening part of the movie,” Ellyot says, “when the city folk realize that they have brought the horror into their homes. People carry coffins through the streets, mark the houses of the dead with crosses, and single out one of the inhabitants as a scapegoat to be lynched. I see very trenchant social criticism in the film.”

Upon Nosferatu’s arrival in the city, Ellen’s heroic role begins to become clear. She reads in an ancient book – which Hutter has forbidden her to read – that the only way to kill the vampire and stop the plague is to tempt him outside at sunrise, so he will be exposed to the light of the sun, which is deadly for him. And she proceeds to do just that.

“Hutter knows he brought the plague to the city, but does nothing, whereas Ellen sacrifices her life. There’s something of a lesson there,” Ellyot says. “At that juncture I brought the strings back into the soundtrack. They represented Ellen and Hutter’s love at the start of the film, only now they sound much gloomier and quite foreboding. But they also possess a certain dignity. Something decisive, as it were, final. Like her choice. I have a great deal of respect for her.”