Though not a word is spoken throughout the film, Nosferatu still manages to chill viewers to the bone, even exactly 90 years after its release. Just how is a film devoid of dialogue so appealing?
The score definitely helps, one played by an in-house organist back in the 1920s when silent films were all the rage. The notes took the audience on an emotional journey throughout each movie without overpowering the action on screen.
This is a technique known all too well to Ben Model, who has helped revive the experience of live musical accompaniment with silent movies. The musician has been creating and performing musical scores for silent movies for 30 years and has been a resident silent-film accompanist at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for nearly a quarter of a century.
On Halloween night, Model will play the Kirby Center's theater organ during a showing of Nosferatu, the German horror film that is considered the unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Q: This is a unique profession. How did you even get into it?
A: Since I was a toddler I've been fascinated with silent movies, having discovered Chaplin on TV. I also played the piano since I was a kid. I went to NYU for film school, and that's where I started playing piano to accompany silent-film screenings in film-history classes. See, this was back before the films were on video and there were no scores on the films, and there's nothing worse than watching a silent movie with no sound, no music. Here I am, a huge fan, and these movies were dying every week in front of film students, and I felt like I had to help these movies. That still motivates me today.
Q: What do you find so appealing about silent films?
A: I think the fact that there's something missing in the film makes it a more satisfying experience, because your imagination is engaged much more. I'm drawn to forms of entertainment that leave things out so that you can figure it out for yourself. All these movies anymore with surround sound, in 3D – viewing them is almost a passive experience, and silent film is much more of an active one.
Q: So even in a world with all these high-tech films, do you think there's still a place for the silent?
A: There's definitely room for more of it. Whether any more gets made is another story. Many entertainers have grown so reliant on talk they don't know that there's a certain amount of power and appeal to not speaking. I wish, or I dare, the people at Saturday Night Live to do a pantomime sketch once a week. I think they'd be very surprised at how successful it would be.
Q: Do you have a process you use when creating a score?
A: Part of it is understanding the film, understanding the drama. I'll watch the film ahead of time and make notes on the story so I can stay ahead of it musically. Because the score is improvised each time it's a little easier; I'm not trying to synchronize written music with everything. I take into account the vibe of the room in the theater, shaping the score to keep the audience interested.
Q: Do you have a favorite film to play along to?
A: Nope. What I do like, however, is being able to do a show, like the one we're going to do at the Kirby, one that gives people the opportunity to see a silent film in a setting similar to how it was done back in the day. That's so exciting for me. There's a brand-new audience ready to experience the film.
What: Nosferatu with live musical accompaniment by Ben Model
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; doors at 6:30 p.m.
Where: F.M. Kirby Center, 71 Public Square, Wilkes-Barre
More info: 826-1100
I think the fact that there's something missing in the film makes it a more satisfying experience, because your imagination is engaged much more.