Sunday, September 25, 2016

Classics Revisited: Nosferatu

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****½

“Can we not stay together a little while longer, my lovely man? It’s still quite a long time until sunrise and I sleep by day, dear fellow… completely dead to the world…” – Count Orlock (Max Schreck)

You’re probably thinking, “Oh no, not another Nosferatu review,” and rightfully so… Wait!  Don’t go yet. I was just getting to the point. The film is so ubiquitous I had nearly convinced myself I’d reviewed it before, when in reality I took a look at Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake a few years back. While Herzog’s version was a respectable film in its own right, it wasn’t the original. With this in mind, I decided it was time to go back to the source of inspiration, and explore why it’s regarded as such a venerable classic. The central character is instantly recognizable to film fans everywhere, even those who never saw the silent original (And if you haven’t seen it by now, what’s wrong with you?)

When’s a Dracula movie not a Dracula movie? When it’s a thinly veiled adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, with a few judicious nips and tucks. In an effort not to get sued by Stoker’s estate, Nosferatu scribe Henrik Galeen changed the character names and locations described in the source material. The ruse didn’t work, however, and Stoker’s widow sued in German court and subsequently won. Pursuant to the ruling, all extant copies were ordered destroyed. Fortunately for us, and film history, prints outside of Germany survived. The movie remains a fascinating and vital contribution to the vampire mythos.

Prior to working in cinema, F.W. Murnau cut his teeth as a stage actor. He eventually graduated to directing feature films. Sadly, seven of his early titles, including an unauthorized adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde,* are presumed lost. This film, with its supernatural themes, helped set the stage for his groundbreaking vampire flick.

* Fun fact: 1920’s Der Januskopf (The Janus Head) featured a young Bela Lugosi, years before his starring turn as a certain vampire count.

Nosferatu’s interiors were shot in a Berlin studio, while the real-life towns of Lübeck and Wismar stood in for the fictitious German town of Wisborg. The film’s art director Albin Grau embodied the principles of Theosophy and its occult doctrines, endowing it with an ominous, otherworldly look. Nosferatu’s link to occult themes is further reflected in the production company’s name, Prana, meaning “the force of life.” Murnau and his crew used many tricks of the trade to create the film’s dreamlike imagery. Although many silent films employed tinting, few did it with such élan. Each color helps further the story, setting and mood, as the scenes transition from golden hues, to pink, to a spectral greenish-blue. Through editing magic, the title creature appears as something that exists on a different plane of existence, not quite corporeal or ghost, fading in and out of the frame, and moving through solid objects. Through time lapse photography a horse-drawn coach (which sometimes appears as a negative image) seems to glide over a road, or a pile of caskets stack up on their own, with no earthly assistance.

Few cinematic monsters are as immediately recognizable or enduring as Max Schreck’s creepy portrayal of Count Orlock. With his enlarged head, pointed ears and long, spidery fingers, Orlock is a thing that inhabits our nightmares suddenly made real, as our subconscious fears emerge into the conscious world. Unlike more modern interpretations of the vampire count, he is a predator through and through, an unapologetic creature that lives only to drain human bodies of their precious blood. Kinski’s re-interpretation of the count in Herzog’s 1979 version captures the look of the original, but presents a more pitiable creature, who laments the curse of eternal life, and the loss of his humanity. Schreck’s take is more instinctual and elemental, a thing that evokes only fear and scorn. Compared to later film iterations of vampires, there’s nothing remotely sexy or endearing about Schreck’s Count Orlock. As good as they are, the Universal and Hammer versions strayed from this paradigm, with Lugosi’s suave performance, or Lee’s sexually charged presence. Many years later, Gary Oldman’s compassionate take as the count in Coppola’s over the top Bram Stoker’s Dracula, further subverted the vampire’s image.  

Why has Nosferatu remained relevant? It tells us something about ourselves, and our need for stories that makes us shiver at things that go bump in the night. Vampire films and stories are a product of the era in which they were produced, a projection of our deepest fears and anxieties. In Stoker’s time, and likely when this film was released, the vampire legend was a distillation of myths passed down through the ages, based in xenophobia (Count Orlock, the outsider from the old world, arrives in the western world, bringing a new type of plague). Some things never change, as this irrational fear of immigrants never seems to have gone out of style. Aside from these darker societal implications, many recent incarnations of vampires have taken a more sympathetic route. The recent trend (I’m looking at you, Twilight and True Blood) has depicted vampires as somehow glamorous, as if their respective afflictions were less of a curse and more like a minor disability, something to be desired and celebrated. The vampire tropes have been co-opted, but without any bite (pardon the pun), until the end result could hardly be referred to as horror. I suggest it’s time for the pendulum to shift back, so vampires can take their rightful place as unapologetic villains. Nosferatu reminds us, nearly a century later, there’s still plenty of room for scary vampires.


  1. Excellent review, Barry!
    Vampires need to become legitimately scary again, like Nosferatu!
    No more sparkles!!

    1. Many thanks, John! I second that! Let monsters be monsters. :)