Should I Watch..? 'Nosferatu'
What's the big deal?
Nosferatu: A Symphony Of Horror (also known simply as Nosferatu) is a silent horror film released in 1922 and is among one of the best known examples of German Expressionism. The film is an adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula but with several changes to character names and settings - nevertheless, it was close enough that Stoker's heirs sued the studio and won which resulted in Prana Films (the studio behind the film) going bankrupt after just one movie. As well as the financial settlement, all copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed but one copy had already been distributed around the world and it has since fallen into the public domain. The film stars Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder and Alexander Granach and was directed by Friedrich W. Murnau. Reviews at the time focused on the occasionally suspect technical side of things but contemporary reviews are almost universally positive and today, the film is regarded as a masterpiece of mood and atmosphere.
What's it about?
In the German city of Wisborg in 1838, Thomas Hutter is asked by his employer Knock to journey to Transylvania to visit a new client - Count Orlok. Sending his wife Ellen to stay with his friend Harding and her sister Annie, Hutter journeys to the remote land where the locals become deeply concerned at the mere mention of Orlok's name. Despite being warned not to visit the Count, Hutter eventually arrives and meets with Orlok and the two have dinner.
Orlok's unusual behaviour starts to worry Hutter and he quickly concludes business, the purchasing of a house in Wisborg not far from Hutter's own home. After waking up the next day with bite marks on his neck, Hutter worries that Orlok could be a vampire and is powerless to stop the Count from heading to Germany to continue his reign of terror.
Trailer for the remastered edition from 2013
Gustav von Wangenheim
Georg H. Schnell
F. W. Murnau
Release Date (USA)
3rd June, 1929
Fantasy, Horror, Silent
What's to like?
It's impossible to think of Nosferatu without bringing to mind that classic image of Orlok's silhouette, fingers and claws outstretched ready for the kill, silently climbing the stairs towards his sleeping victim. Of course, the film is much more than just one image but it's the image that stays with you afterwards, a simple one but mightily effective. It's actually indicative of the film as a whole. Bereft of the special effects and genre clichés we expect from a vampire film, the movie works hard to make the most out of what it can do and credit must be given for that.
Schreck is a revelation as Orlok. Buried beneath heavy makeup and prosthetics, he looks every inch the monster he is supposed to and not some well-groomed charmer like Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee portrayed. It is impossible to escape the age of the film due to its obvious fragility - it almost feels like you are watching it via a projector and the film itself could collapse at any moment - but it's remarkable how ambitious the film is. Of course the acting is hammy because this is German Expressionism so it's supposed to be. But this doesn't stop the film from being creepy and unnerving. Not traditionally scary but it has a way of staying with you.
- The city of Wisborg is fictional but they shot several locations in Wismar and Lübeck. Most, if not all, of the medieval architecture shown in the film is still standing today.
- Many of the scenes featuring Orlok outside his castle were filmed during the day, which is both problematic for Orlok considering his weakness for sunlight as well as the film-makers shooting in black-and-white. Later versions tinted these scenes blue to correct this oversight.
- The 2000 film Shadow Of The Vampire is a fictionalised account of the making of this film, portraying the actor Schreck as an actual vampire. This might not be so far-fetched - Schreck himself was something of a loner with a strange sense of humour and enjoyed long walks through forests.
What's not to like?
Apart from the overall lack of scares, Nosferatu has not aged as well as Count Orlok himself. The Expressionist style of the film and screenplay means that every reaction is over-the-top and faintly silly with women fainting at the slightest provocation and eyebrows being raised at the drop of a hat. Of course, I understand that this was a popular style at the time of the film's production but it does considerably ease the amount of tension the film otherwise generates. This is possibly the most family-friendly horror film I think I've ever seen although younger children might be wise to keep away.
It's fitting that Schreck dominates the picture the way he does because he distracts you from the rest of the cast, who could be members of a local am-dram society for all I knew or cared. On a personal level, I don't recall much about the film's soundtrack other than the usual violin stirrings during Orlok's scenes. It doesn't feel as epic in scale as Fritz Lang's 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis or as visually striking as 1920's The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, the other film most people think of when discussing German Expressionism. But Nosferatu has rightfully earned a place in the history of cinema, demonstrating the cinematic potential in Stoker's acclaimed novel (which is worth a read if you have the time) and setting the benchmark for vampire films for decades to come.
Should I watch it?
Few people today are going to be as frightened of Nosferatu as its audiences way back when but nearly a century on, the film remains a fascinating watch. It's amazing to think how it all came together from a technical perspective and for fans of cinema history in general, it's an essential watch. Goths and vampire fans will always sing its praises but personally, it isn't as scary as it once was and is now more of an unsettling curiosity than a timeless fright-fest.
Great For: film historians, horror fans, Goths, horror film-makers
Not So Great For: very young children, copyright infringement, the blind
What else should I watch?
I don't know what it is about German Expressionism that lends it to the horror genre but many examples around that era tend to lean that way. In addition to The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, you also have other classics like The Hands Of Orlac from 1924 and the 1920 horror film The Golem: How He Came Into The World. And although it isn't a silent film, Fritz Lang's M has continually grown in stature since its release and is now considered one of the best films in history.
Vampires have been appearing in cinema ever since the release of Nosferatu although Hollywood's first attempt at adapting 'Dracula' for the screen wouldn't appear until 1931 when Bela Lugosi appeared as the blood-sucking fiend. Christopher Lee, another actor closely associated with the role, first appeared as the Count in 1958's Dracula and would go on to appear in the role another seven times until 1973's The Satanic Rites Of Dracula. Today, vampires are almost ubiquitous in films and TV although the horror element often is replaced with comedy or even romance. I wonder what Stoker's heirs would make of that.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox