06 September 2008

Nosferatu (1922)

d. F.W. Murnau / Germany / 94 mins.
Alt. "Nosferatu, eien Symphonie des Grauens."

Of all the facts and fables surrounding Nosferatu, none is more important than to say it was first film adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. This gives it a chronological place, yes, but more importantly it places the film in a proper context of its horror ratio. The tropes of vampirism – particularly the mythos as defined by Stoker – have been copied, imitated, and parodied almost compulsively in the last century. But how would these tropes have played with audiences unfamiliar with the text in 1922 Germany or 1929 America? The minor chills we feel today are surely just the weak echoes from their nightmares.

By today's standards, Nosferatu (or as it is formally known in English, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror) is occasionally guilty of silliness as it explores these tropes. When a young real estate agent drops a picture of his wife on a table, the vampire's eyes widen, cuing this nugget of foreshadowing: "Your wife has a beautiful neck." Admittedly, it's difficult not to chuckle. But some of the film's imagery constructed by director F.W. Murnau retains surprising degrees of horror and power: the expressionist and haunting shadows that were staples of early German cinema; the coffins full of cursed soil and diseased rats; the chamber doors that open and close with near sentience; the ghostly horse-drawn carriage that picks up the hero and delivers him to the vampire's castle; the stiff-as-a-board count rising in a perfect ninety-degree arc out of his crypt; the procession of coffins, full of victims, down a cobblestone street.

Today we're lucky we even have the film, and the story of its survival is infamous. Murnau and his screenwriter, Henrik Galeen, were denied permission from Stoker's widow to adapt the novel, but they went ahead and did it anyway, changing the names – Harker to Hutter, Mina to Ellen, Dracula to Orlok – and altering a few of the situations but rather audaciously lifting the plot. Not surprisingly, the ploy is as transparent on-screen as I make it sound, and Stoker's widow won a lawsuit that called for all copies of the film to be destroyed, which obviously didn't happen. (More interesting, I think, is that by violating the terms of the lawsuit, ironically Nosferatu has gone on to be considered by many the finest adaptation of Stoker's text.)

In many ways it is a great film. It was perhaps inevitable that Stoker's novel would see adaptation, and lovers of cinema can rejoice that such a talented director arrived at it first. (I'm no fan of copyright infringement; I'm just looking at it purely in hindsight.) We begin with Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), a real estate agent sent into the spooky countryside at the behest of his boss (named Knock, played by Alexander Granach) to finalize the purchase of an abandoned town house. This normal act is imbued with suspicious elements: Hutter's wife Ellen (Greta Schroeder) does not want him to go; the letter Knock receives about the property is written in runes, and oddly understands them; and the carriage originally meant to carry Hutter to the castle of Count Orlok (Max Shreck) will not venture past a certain point. When we first see Orlok – his pale skin, his sharp ears, his hungry eyes, his elongated front teeth – immediately we know why.

All of the actors are competent, but none reach the level of Shreck, who plays Orlok with unsettling focus and inhuman removal. His disturbing performance would inspire one big wink of a film, Shadow of the Vampire (2000), in which Shreck's eeriness is "explained" by the fact that he is an actual vampire. (Of course it's fiction, but what flattering fiction it is.) Shreck can be commended for his own bizarreness in the role, but the real power comes in the differences between Orlok as a visual character and Stoker's written descriptions of Count Dracula. Orlok is stripped of Dracula's stated debonair and urbane manner and given the hybridized characteristics of both rats and bats, not to mention a physically manifested pestilence that makes him more than a tad off-putting. You can at least understand why, in the novel, Jonathan Harker might have been charmed by Dracula; in Nosferatu, you want Hutter to turn around and run away at the mere sight of Orlok.

Yet the brilliance of the film is that while there's nothing seductive about Orlok, when he's onscreen it's difficult to look away. Such can be said too for the film as a whole. Murnau's acute directorial sense gives Nosferatu an unmistakable visual appeal, even compared against other examples of German expressionism. The shadows are used liberally and the special effects (or rather, the elementary effects of fading and dissolving) are used minimally. The world of Nosferatu feels real, and Orlok's otherworldly presence makes him, and the fear, all the more disconcerting.

It is worth noting that it has become more important than ever to do your best and try to find the most traditional copy of a film that you can in order to appreciate it for its initial artistic merits. Nosferatu is one of the most famous films in public domain, which has made it susceptible to DVD releases that want to play around with the title cards and the score. The best copy available to the public at my local library is a DVD release from a few years ago, given comically green title cards (it looks like something from an amateurish pulp magazine) and a score performed on a synthesizer that electronically imitates the cries, gasps, and pleas. Another version has a jazz fusion score, and still others exist. It's sad; the ordeal of trying to make a silent movie "hip" by adding contemporary sounds is really embarrassing for the companies and insulting to the viewers.

Nosferatu should be enjoyed as Murnau meant for it to be enjoyed, and fortunately last year Kino released a stellar DVD that uses the original German title cards (with caption translations) and a recording of the Hans Erdmann score that accompanied the film in its initial releases. I strongly recommend going with that DVD if at all possible, but let me say too that even if the lovingly prepared authentic release is not a possibility for you, Nosferatu is still very much worth your time. It's arguably Murnau's most famous film, although certainly not his best (see: Sunrise), and also one of the great films of the horror genre. Just do yourself and Murnau a favor: the moment you hear a ridiculous synthesizer, hit the mute button.


Tony Dayoub 07 September, 2008  

Good film, and good post.

Did you ever see Herzog's remake?

T.S. 07 September, 2008  

Tony - I haven't. I've heard it's quite good, though. It's on my ever-growing list of "things to see," alongside - in all honesty - many of Herzog's other films.

MovieMan0283 08 September, 2008  

I'm torn of this film - it undoubtedly has some of the most striking images ever put on celluloid, which is enough to earn its classic status. But much of the movie, especially the second half, is tedious with no sense of pacing. My reaction's all the more ironic because Murnau is one of my favorite directors of all time.

But the copies I've watched have been pretty bad, so I should probably seek out a better-looking version. And anyway, whenever Schreck's onscreen it's worth it. When you wrote that he gives a great performance, my first instinct was to think, no - it wasn't a performance. The influence of Shadow of the Vampire to be sure, but even without that film's revisionism, I'd probably still think of Schreck AS Nosferatu.

Sam Juliano,  09 September, 2008  

I found no tedium with this at all, and it ranks as one o fthe supreme masterpieces in the history of the cinema, as well as the first and still greatest vampire film. Again, T.S. crafts an engaging piece with rightful aceentuation on Schreck's character, which is still one of the most frightening and disturbing screen incantations, all within Murnau's unforgettable, atmospheric imagry. When trying to discern the Murnau masterwork, one will always be torn between NOSFERATU, THE LAST LAUGH and SUNRISE, but historically, the vampire film will always be his most famous. The lawsuit in and of itself is a story.

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