Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

(Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror, DE - 1922)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Max Schreck, Greta Schröder, Gustav von Wangenheim, Alexander Granach, John Gottowt
Genre: Horror/Expressionism
Director: F.W. Murnau
Screenplay: Henrik Galeen, freely adapted from Dracula by Bram Stoker
Cinematography: Günther Krampf, Fritz Arno Wagner
Composer: Timothy Howard
Runtime: 82 minutes

People like to talk about records that will never be broken and things that can never be topped. One of the most impressive things about this movie is that 80 years later Max Schreck's Count Orlok (Nosferatu) is still the most ghastly creature in cinema history. With his odd shaped back that connects to his misshapen bald head, elongated clawlike fingers, rat fangs, oversized pointy nose and ears, bushy eyebrows, and raccoon eyes, this repulsive figure lurks in the shadows and rises straight up from his coffin without any bend or arch! The look is the key to his performance, but the worst you could say about him is he's effective as all hell. Beyond the look, his effectiveness comes from giving us none of the flair of his later incarnations. His Nosferatu plays with the hand he's dealt because his only other choice is to fold.

Although this was transparent adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, causing a legal mess that nearly lead to the pictures destruction because director F.W. Murnau did so without reaching an agreement with Stoker's widow, this story is much more of a tragedy. The key difference is all religious aspects were not only removed, but somewhat shockingly replaced by a technically excellent venus flytrap demonstration and a spider eating it's pray. These scenes argue (without supporting) that what's good for plants and animals should also be good for man. Far more important than the brief symbolism, it moves the story from a battle between good and evil to one where all the key characters are somewhat sympathetic. Orlok is cursed. Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenhiem), while vain and self confident, is too innocent and na?e to see anything as it is. Even though her deed is at least partly done to stop the plague, Ellen Hutter (Greta Schroder) needs something from Nosferatu (who in a sense becomes her husband when he sucks Thomas' blood) her (now shadow of a) husband always seemed incapable of giving her. Actually, in a way Thomas needs something from Nosferatu too, so they are all kind of reliant on each other even though the relation dooms them. Although categorized as a horror, really the film uses a vampire story to examine marriage and how ones life can be turned upside down.

Aside from Schreck, all the performances look ridiculous by today's standards. You can't really hold the overacting against the film though because that's how it was done in those days. What's still so impressive though is the direction of Murnau. This was a well-conceived visualist who did something with every shot. Although his tools were rudimentary and much technology had yet to be invented, this silent film shows that the artist's creative mind, within reason, is more important than the tools he works with.

The haunting atmosphere of the peace comes in many areas. There are little things like off center framings and the use of shadow to make Nosferatu creepier (highlighted by the legendary shot on the stairs of his shadow). There are big things like photographic negative, which made the coach travel by white trees under a black sky, fast motion to make Orlok's servant scamper off as quickly as possible, and two key montage (Murnau was at least on of the innovators of the technique) sequences. This film is not an exercise in style; it's a film that tells its story though the best available technique. The technique allows Murnau to reach the core of vampirism in a way unlike any of his predecessors.

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