Nosferatu has long been considered a horror movie staple, and it is the earliest film on the Sight & Sound Top 250 list by German director F.W. Murnau. Between 1922 and his untimely death in an automobile accident in 1931, Murnau produced four movies now considered by critics to be among the very greatest ever made, with his 1927 film Sunrise (#5) being the highest ranked silent film on the list. Nosferatu was the first attempt to bring Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the silver screen, but it was filmed without securing the rights from the author’s estate. Consequently all of the characters have different names and some story details were changed in the hopes of avoiding a lawsuit (it didn’t work, they were sued and most prints of the film were destroyed as a result). So while it is a familiar story, Nosferatu gives it a spin all its own and produces one of the most iconic villains of cinema — the hideous bloodsucker Count Orlok. (92 min.)
S. – This film was a strange journey, and that was not due to the narrative unfolding on the screen. Rather the quality of the production itself seemed to improve as the the movie went along. What began as rather a dull affair suddenly switches gears about 30 minutes in and becomes a visually arresting experience of a classic horror tale. The role of the vampire Count Orlok is portrayed convincingly by the truly unsettling Max Schreck, otherwise the cast is not particularly inspiring, but it is the camera work and scene construction through the middle and most of the later sections of the film that I found to be its main strength.
J. – I agree 100% with regard to the change in the film as it went along. The sudden quality shift perplexed me to no end while we were watching the movie. It was as if Murnau was directing the scenes in narrative order and then about a third of the way into shooting suddenly learned how to frame a shot, dress a set, and make compelling use of light and shadow. The first third of the film is not just listless in its plotting but the scenery, sets, camera angles, and lighting are all intensely dull — and this in a story where a man is travelling in werewolf country to meet a vampiric lord! Then there is this sudden transition around the time Count Orlok boards a ship in his coffins where the movie suddenly becomes dynamic and interesting on a visual level. The moment that, for me, really signaled the move to a new and surprising sophistication in visual presentation was the shot of the heroine on the beach with crosses sticking out of the dunes. It was a wonderfully unreal composition, bringing a morbid, religious intensity to the already poignant image of a distressed, windblown woman watching the waves alone. But this sudden creative surge did not necessarily occur on a story level, as the film continued to feel disjointed and without a clear idea of purpose or character.
S. – The above shot is one of my favorites from the film and conveyed a sense of hopelessness that I thought was quite affecting. I was very curious to watch an early film that tackled horror, fear is a powerful emotion and to inspire it in your audience I think you need to lead them only so far down a path before leaving the rest to their imagination. I don’t feel like that was achieved here. A lot of the action was the actors flapping about and looking frightened. Much furrowing of brows and biting of lips, more comical than scary. Where tension was generated effectively was in the use of shadows; the dimly lit face of Count Orlok or his menacing, misshapen form slowly ascending the stairs.
Another theme that was employed but not quite pulled off was the vampire’s relentlessness. While those who had crossed his path or guessed at the threat spun in circles he calmly tracked down his prey, deftly removing all obstacles. The most perplexing element of the story for me was the character of Knock (Alexander Granach), I suppose he was demonstrating the power of the vampire by being under his influence via some supernatural means but was supremely irritating to me and didn’t add any value to the story.
J. – The use of shadows really was excellent, and gave a real sense of power to a vampire creation that was already seriously creepy in the flesh.
But I agree that there were a number of perplexing story threads in this film, and the motivations of numerous characters were really unclear. There also never really was an antagonist for Orlok (nominal protagonist Hutter certainly can’t count as one), so there was no real sense of tension or conflict. I agree that the actors frequently undermined the terror through their manic performances. This was particularly true of Gustav von Wangenheim’s performance as Hutter, which was particularly over the top and dreadful, even when one takes into account the more exaggerated mode of the era. He almost seemed like he belonged to a different movie.
I disagree, however, that the vampire’s relentlessness was not adequately pulled off. I thought the scenes on the ship were particularly effective and really drove home the grim threat that the Count represented. It may seem a bit hokey compared to today’s standard of scary, but those scenes were undeniably atmospheric and unsettling, with the use of shadows, rats, and Schreck’s shock rise from the coffin. And the aforementioned use of shadow as the Count glided up stairs really made him seem unstoppable, as did the interesting use of sped-up motion for some scenes of the Count which highlighted his otherworldly power quite effectively (especially the herky-jerky horse-drawn carriage, that was a neat effect).
S. – I think the reason the vampire’s relentless journey to Ellen Hutter (Greta Schroeder) wasn’t entirely successful for me was, as you say, the lack of a convincing nemesis. You never believed Hutter was going to have the initiative to head Orlok off, and even when (thanks to a very dubious timeline) he does get home before disaster strikes he is absolutely no help to his beloved. Unfortunately the potential horror of the Count is totally undermined by the supporting cast. Outwitting that gaggle of characters does not make you fear for your own safety. One of the things I want to give Murnau credit for are some of the scenes through the middle part of the film, many of the shots are constructed beautifully and I look forward to seeing more of his work based on the glimpses of wonderful cinematography that were provided within Nosferatu.
J. – I’m of much the same mind. There are a number of really wonderful shots across the entire middle of the film and some of the end of the movie (even if the plot never really quite adds up). It is probably worth mentioning that only three films on the Sight & Sound list are older than Nosferatu, so I’m willing to give some of its primitive plotting and acting a pass. But even more notable, I think, is that none of those three earlier movies have shots that are nearly as atmospheric or beautiful as what can be found in Nosferatu, and even Dr. Caligari‘s bizarrely contorted sets offer little of the unsettling creepiness of Nosferatu’s finest moments. Also, you’ve gotta give props to Nosferatu for inventing a key vampire rule that everyone probably assumes is a bit of centuries-old Romanian folklore: sunlight kills vampires. Before Nosferatu, no, it didn’t.
Whatever my qualms about the film and the acting, I do want to throw out some serious praise for Max Schreck and the people who did his makeup. Schreck, both in the way he looked and the way he carried himself, was a compellingly creepy and vile villain. Between Schreck’s Count Orlok and Bela Lugosi’s performance in Dracula nearly a decade later you get probably the competing visions of movie monsterdom that have lasted to this day: do you go sexy/alluring but deadly, or grotesque and unstoppable? Schreck defined the latter tradition through his unsettling performance.
(As an aside, this is interwar German film number five for this blog, and we are now five for five in having characters who are or have been confined to a nuthouse. We’ve yammered about this before, but it’s worth noting that the trend continues and we still have at least one mad scientist to go!)