Director: F.W. Murnau
Stars: Max Schreck (Orlok / Nosferatu), Gustav von Wangenheim (Hutter), Greta Schroder (Ellen Hutter), Alexander Granach (Knock)
Let’s not pretend for a moment that I know what I am talking about with this one. When it comes to 1920s silent cinema, German or otherwise, I am in over my head. I’m in the tall weeds. This is not an expert’s opinion. I couldn’t tell you how, particularly, Murnau’s film fitted into the milieu of the time, nor how it ranks when compared to the works of his contemporaries. Nor tell you who his contemporaries were. No, for Nosferatu I’m going to have to take a different approach – in fact, one more in keeping with the title of this essay series – and simply describe why I love it.
Firstly, I came to this film in a sort of backwards way, I suppose. From the Werner Herzog remake. That film and this one are nearly inseparable to me (for some I’m sure that’s blasphemy). I love Herzog’s film; it’s dark, dreamy atmosphere, that wonderful music. I’m sure it will make a later entry in this series. But it provoked me to go back and see this film. It also provoked me to finally sit down and read Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. A consuming, outstanding novel, which Nosferatu famously plagiarised.
Indeed great effort was made to make Nosferatu unavailable following a lawsuit which the Stoker estate won. It’s not only easy to see why but downright obvious. Jonathan Harker has become Hutter… Count Dracula has become Count Orlok… changing the names does not a new story make.
In fairness to Murnau, it is not the same story. A majority of the middle of the book is simply removed. Dr Van Heilsing’s character is almost completely exorcised, and the ending is completely different. But it is truer in spirit and tone to Stoker’s novel than the more famous Bela Lugosi film offered up by Tod Browning nearly a decade later, and remains one of the most arresting pieces of Gothic cinema I’ve ever had the fortune to encounter.
I have seen two versions of this movie. One, streamed online (possibly the worst way to view anything, with the possible exception of people who watch movies on their phones – who are you?) in traditional black and white, the other a colour-tinted DVD from Eureka’s excellent Masters Of Cinema collection. I am torn between which I prefer. The colour tinting strangely makes the film seem even older than it is, like some arcane artefact, an archaeologist’s discovery. It also helps distinguish the day scenes from the night ones. However the black and white feels more atmospheric. It’s a tough call. In the end, both are successes thanks to the strength of the imagery conjured by Murnau. And Max Schreck.
Schreck’s Count Orlok is, for me, the definitive movie monster. Perhaps only rivalled by H R Giger’s alien creature. Schreck embodies the living dead, the vampire, with a committed physicality that is simply stunning. It may have been parodied and emulated countless times since, but it has lost none of its power to draw you in and disturb. It is so unnatural. When he rises up, stiff as a board? When he stalks around the deck of the doomed vessel that brings him across the ocean? Utterly transfixing. The audio commentary for the aforementioned Masters Of Cinema DVD descends into farce as one of the commentators becomes quite clearly enthralled by Schreck, reduced to repeatedly babbling “The claws! The claws!”
Orlok is a great trickster, also. He first appears in disguise, as a coachman, enabling Hutter in his journey to the castle. This is done with almost pantomime bravura. The audience is in on it, immediately, but Hutter is not. Then, his miraculous arrival inside the castle, stalking out from a dark archway, marks his first true appearance. It repeatedly gives me the creeps the way few modern horror movies do. This moment is one of many in which Orlok appears to effect time. I love the scene of him speedily piling the boxes of dirt onto the coach to leave his castle, both funny and sinister.
But of course, Schreck is not the only thing to see in this movie. It is exquisite to look at. Beautifully composed shots, one following another. This is complimented, on the recent remaster, by a stirring rendition of Hans Erdmann’s original score. The music’s buoyancy and gravity sweeping the picture into the realm of dark fairytale. And as time wears on (this film is 90 years old now) its age only helps it. Nosferatu feels like it should be old. An eerie tale out of the past. A window into a cold world of protracted journeys, of superstitions and romance.
One of the elements Murnau brought to the story that is very much an addition (and one explored even further by Herzog) is the idea of plague following Orlok from Transylvania to England. The sequence in which the doctor goes from home to home marking the doors of the afflicted or deceased with crosses is as troubling as anything else here. Also, as previously mentioned, the ending differs greatly from Stoker’s novel, arguably improving it. In the book Dracula, Mina Harker plays the role of witness to the Count’s downfall by the men. Here, Orlok’s obsession with Ellen Hutter brings about his own doom. It’s a simpler, but far more sexual, err, climax. Orlok becomes the craven, forbidden desires of man, tempered by the evangelical woman, her virtue placed on pedestal.
Vampires are ‘in’ again, and have been for a while. Between HBO’s sassy and openly ludicrous True Blood series (ridiculously enjoyable candy for adults) to the tween goliath Twilight (never seen – can’t comment), there is clearly plenty of mileage left in the idea. But the most engrossing and moving renditions of the vampire myth, for me, are the Nosferatu movies. As I said before, I’m loath to choose one over the other, but if pushed, Murnau’s does win out. Pure cinema. And one of the greatest horrors of all time.