Written by: Henrik Galeen (screenplay), Bram Stoker (novel, unaccredited)
Directed by: F.W. Marnau
Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, and Greta Schroeder
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"It will cost you sweat and tears, and perhaps... a little blood."
90 years is a really long time. Thatís about how long itís been since F.W. Marnau unleashed Nosferatu on the world, and I donít think he could have anticipated what he wrought. While it didnít contain the first cinematic vampire (they popped up a few times in the previous decade), it was certainly the first important vampire film, one whose influence has stretched all the way through those 89 years and will definitely reach beyond them. Iíve belabored many a intro of reviews for vampire flicks (it gets harder and harder to talk about how theyíre still so damn popular), and I guess Nosferatu is partially to blame for that because it unleashed a torrent of movies inspired by both itself and Bram Stokerís Dracula (which it unofficially adapted), while also making the undead bloodsucker a viable cinematic villain.
Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is this taleís Jonathan Harker, as heís sent off by a shady real estate agent to sell off some land to the mysterious Count Orlok (Max Schreck). Leaving his wife (Gretta Schroeder) behind, he embarks for the Orlokís castle tucked away in the sinister Carpathian mountains. Upon arrival, it soon becomes clear that the count is a bizarre individual; in fact, he might be one of the undead. These suspicions are confirmed when Orlok preternaturally begins to covet Hutterís wife and begins his own journey towards his guestís homeland of Wisborg, spreading death and disease along the way.
Despite its obvious lifting of Stokerís plot, Nosferatu actually feels far more influenced by old folklore. Unfolding like some sort of dark, twisted fairy tale, Marnauís film is a haunting masterpiece of delirium. Itís told by an unseen narrator who relates his tale (which he apparently heard from another minstrel) to the audience as if he were a traveling bard. These passages are quite lyrical and forlorn, possessing a sort of Poe-like rhythm in its verbiage. Silent cinema is typically marked by evocative imagery (and Nosferatu is no exception), but the wistful and powerful words that open this one establish a strange, ominous vibe thatís never shaken. Sharing much in common with its warped, awry literary antecedents (many of which also hailed from Germany), Nosferatu is an unsettling tale of good and evil at its core. Our protagonist is a stereotypically good man who hails from a vibrant, sunny village; heís taken away to a ďland of deathĒ thatís marked by deep, foreboding shadows.
Marnauís visuals are a staggering compliment that further entrench viewers in a macabre beauty. His lighting and color tinting often reveal a spectral, dream-like palette, and many of his shots are daring. For such a primitive film, Nosferatu dares to be both ambitious and precise (consider the framing at the picture at right--how different would it look if those crosses werenít askew?); silent films often feel like a half-remembered dream with their unnatural frame rates and exaggerated movements, but this one is even more bizarre and ethereal, especially when Hutter reaches his ghoulish destination. Orlokís creepy abode is a sharp, menacing presence and is usually bathed in a blue tint (which signifies night has fallen). The director exhibits his penchant for light and shadow play throughout, as his film is a ghastly display of mood and atmosphere. Itís a true pot-boiler in every sense of the word, as it slowly builds towards its ghastly reveal. Nervous townspeople give Hutter wary glances when he announces his intentions; they also whisper about a werewolf that prowls around under the moonlight.
When heís ultimately revealed, the titular Nosferatu is a startling figure. Far removed from Stokerís conception of a stately, debonair gentleman, Max Schreck is rendered into a ghastly, inhuman figure with demonic facial features and unnatural, elongated fingers. If he just stood still, heíd be fucking terrifying, but Schreck gives him this odd gait that causes him to skulk and glide across the screen all at once. Hundreds of vampires have stalked the screen since Orlok, but none of them have been as distinctive as him; ranking right up there with the likes of Karloffís Frankenstein and Englundís Krueger, Shreckís hideous, malformed bloodsucker is an enduring image of terror. Orlok is a sickly, pale figure, which is apt because Marnau transforms him into a metaphor for the Plague; his nemesis isnít vampire killer Dr. Van Helsing, but rather, a scientist (maybe a botanist) who observes vampiric qualities throughout nature. Whereas most incarnations of Dracula paint him as a tempting, sexual figure, Orlok is simply a force of nature like the Black Death; his desire for Hutterís wife arises out of a primal need to destroy innocence rather than seduce it.
Stripping the story of Stokerís Victorian contexts and concerns enables the film to get to the heart of its good vs. evil morality play, which further wraps it in fairy tale aesthetics. And itís a terrifying one at that; the film is sometimes subtitled A Symphony of Horror, which describes it better than I ever could. At its heart, it really is just a frightful bit of horror, complete with audacious technical merits, such as bravura location shots, special effects, and parlor tricks to elicit scares from an audience. Some of the best effects are in concert with Orlok himself, as heís often transformed into a phantasmic figure who can mysteriously make doors open on their own and such. Minor details of Stokerís novel might have changed, but the more fantastic, horrific elements are still there, such as the insect-eating Renfield type. In many ways, Nosferatu anticipates European films that would come decades later in its insistence over creating imagery and mood rather than a rigid plot. Ultimately, itís quite an affecting film too, one that weaves themes of sacrifice and faith into its bleak horrors.
This haunting display of madness and otherworldly terror was almost lost to the world forever thanks to the Stoker estate. They didnít take kindly to Marnau co-opting Dracula and actually won a lawsuit against the film; this resulted in a court order for all prints to be destroyed, but it was too late by that point, as some had already been distributed. Perhaps the scariest thing of all is imagining a world without Nosferatu; it possesses the genreís most distinctive creature of the night and displays some of the eeriest, nightmarish illusions youíll ever see. Does that make it the best vampire movie of all time? I couldnít argue against that, and Iíll even take it a step further by saying Nosferatu is one of the best films of all time, period.
Oddly enough, the Stoker estateís wishes have been completely unheeded by the passage of time. Not only is Nosferatu available, itís easily found just about everywhere since slipping into the public domain. Thereís a good chance itís already sitting on your shelf in some sort of collection, but you really ought to pick up the Kino Video DVD to do the film complete justice. Their release features an immaculate restoration from a 35mm print and presents Hans Erdmannís original score in both 5.1 and stereo tracks. Kino also offers excerpts from other Marnau films, a 52 minute making-of-documentary, a short feature on the filmís restoration, a photo gallery, and comparison between the film, screenplay, and Stokerís original novel. As a cornerstone of horror cinema, Nosferatu deserves no less than such a presentation since it thrives on surreal visions and wraps viewers in a foreboding dread. One of the most evocative and unforgettable tales of terror ever committed to cinema, itís one no horror aficionado should be without. Essential!
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