For three years, Italian artist Andrea Mastrovito and a dozen assistants have slaved away on NYsferatu: a Symphonie of a Century, a remake of the 1922 vampire classic Nosferatu, but made out of 35,000 hand-drawn pictures. “This movie is my second wife right now,” Mastrovito told us. “We are always together, me and NYsferatu. And even if I love it, I love and hate it. NYsferatu has sucked my blood.”
At last, this Monday, the film will premiere at Pier 63.
By setting the original characters and movements in front of a new background and by changing the title cards that are interspersed throughout the silent movie, Mastrovito has given the traditional story a novel interpretation. In this version, Hutter travels not from Germany to Transylvania, but from Manhattan to war-torn Syria, which is situated where the Bronx normally would be. “Because with the internet today,” Mastrovito said, “The world is really smaller.”
The vampire figure Nosferatu is reimagined to be the representation of the unknown, the refugee, whom we fear and whom we blame for the faults in our society. With the old Knock as a relentless Wall Street real estate broker, who manipulates the strings of his powerless puppets into fearing the foreigner, the artwork is a critique of our present time. “I want the people to understand that they are always afraid of the things that they don’t know,” Mastrovito said.
The film was commissioned by More Art. This non-profit in support of public art was established in 2003 in Chelsea to get the longtime residents of East of 10th Avenue in touch with the artists that rapidly poured into the westside of the neighborhood. The idea was that residents and artists could team up to discuss and creatively address problems such as homelessness, immigration and housing.
You might know More Art’s work from the series of portraits of homeless people and families that adorned the West 4th station in 2014. Photographer Andres Serrano was commissioned to give more visibility to the often-overlooked New Yorkers that have no shelter. “And it was a way for the homeless individuals themselves to be like: ‘Look, I am here. I live here in New York,’” said More Art’s Jeff Kasper.
This was a year after the organization cooperated with Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, who made Union Square’s statue of Abe Lincoln come to life by projecting the faces and hand gestures of veterans on it. The veterans shared the trauma and neglect they had experienced after returning from the front, calling attention to the obstacles many of them face in integrating back into civilian life.
“However,” Kasper said, “We know that it takes a lot more than just art to make change and that’s why we are seeking more and more to support the work of activists and policymakers.”
In the case of NYsferatu, More Art and Mastrovito made contact with the people the artwork concerns by holding workshops with ESL students, immigrants from all over the world. They helped to rewrite the film’s title cards and to reimagine the story and its characters. “They let me enter their lives and they gave me so much incredible input,” Mastrovito said. “I put many clues in the movie, but I didn’t know exactly what I was doing that for, and then, watching the first two acts with them, they told me, ‘Okay, but you are doing this,’ and I said, ‘Oh yes, you’re right, that’s true, Nosferatu is looking for freedom, this is his quest for freedom,’ and I hadn’t realized that until I was talking with them.”
If it hadn’t been for a long-ago coincidence, however, Mastrovito would never have been able to cleverly update the classic in this way, since the mother of all vampire movies almost got erased from history in 1922. In a copyright lawsuit that pitted filmmaker Murnau against the wife of Bram Stoker, who wrote the original Dracula story, judges decided that the few minor changes that Murnau had made were not enough to evade copyright law and they ordered destruction of all copies.
Due to one copy that had found its way into the US, however, the silent movie survived and ended up influencing the horror genre forever. In the U.S., European copyrights did not prevail, and, similar to how the accidentally uncopyrighted The Night of the Living Dead (1967) determined the direction of the zombie figure for decades, Nosferatu came to canonize many traits of the pop cultural vampire deep into the 21st century, when Mastrovito took up the classic.
“The act of drawing is a means for understanding reality,” he said, explaining his political interpretation of the original. “It is something that I use to create new points of view. And this is my personal point of view about not only the city, but the entire world and not only the world but even our century.”
The film has an original score by Italian composer Simone Giuliani, but will often be shown, in the tradition of silent movies, accompanied by live music that is going to be different from one screening to the other.
The first screening is August 14 at Pier 63 (Hudson River Park), 8:30pm. It’ll be accompanied by musical improvisation by Electric Six’s Dick Valentine and Quinn English of The Gay Blades. The second will be August 17, 8:30pm, at the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows-Carona Park, and features the original soundtrack. For the complete list of screenings, see NYsferatu‘s website.