Director: F.W. Murnau
Stars: Max Schreck, Greta Schröder and Ruth Landshoff
Review by CJ Brooks
Vampire Count Orlok expresses interest in a new residence and real estate agent Hutter's wife. Silent classic based on the story "Dracula."
Although the legend of vampires had been long established among the world it was to the credit of Bram Stoker with his 1897 novel Dracula that the myth really took off. After Stoker’s death in 1912, his wife inherited the estate and, feeling that his work was being exploited, refrained from providing rights to the Dracula name for public use. F.W. Murnau, intending to direct a film based on the Dracula story, was required to change a few names and re-titled his film Nosferatu, thus creating one of the first great horror films.
Some would argue that Nosferatu was the first horror film, although monsters had appeared in a number of creepy and scary films prior to the 1922 premiere, including Boese and Wegener’s The Golem and John Robertson’s adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with John Barrymore playing a formidable Hyde. Nosferatu, however, is considered the first classic of the bunch because of how well it plays up its frightening special effects and make-up. Granted, no contemporary audience should walk into a viewing of this film expecting to be scared. By today’s standards the film’s more terrifying sequences seem awfully out-dated and trite, but in its time, it was tantamount to a viewing of Ringu.
As the film is now in public domain, there are a number of DVD options. English translations may include the original title cards while others have reverted the names and places to those featured in Stoker’s novel. Other editions replace the Hans Erdmann’s original accompanying score with more modern music (Type-O Negative provides a horrible recording on one such release and one is advised to ignore it at all costs). The 2007 Kino’s Ultimate 2-Disc Edition is the recommended restoration. It attempts the best transfer to DVD you’ll likely find and retains the original score so its purchase is likely your best bet at a worthy experience. Again, as the film is in public domain, you can easily find the film up at popular video sites online which also come with varying degrees of restoration.
The story of the film borrows many aspects of Stoker’s novel. Hutter, a real estate agent, is sent off to Transylvania at the request of his boss to visit Count Orlock who has expressed interest in moving to Bremen, Germany. On his way there, Hutter encounters locals who, upon hearing of his destination, warn him of the vampiric evil that lurks in the darkness. Hutter laughs off these superstitious fears and makes his way to Orlock’s castle. Upon entering Orlock’s domain he begins to recognize strange sights: a hyena, seemingly out of place in Eastern Europe, frightens off several horses; the carriage that brings Hutter to the gates of the castle moves with supernatural speed; Orlock himself seems overly concerned with Hutter’s finger when he cuts it on a dinner knife. “Precious blood!” Orlock cries out. Hutter is rescued briefly by a telepathic cry from his wife that somehow causes reluctance on the part of Orlock. But this paranormal act does not protect Hutter for long and by the next morning he finds two marks on his neck.
Orlock makes his way to Bremen lying within a stack of coffins and feeding off of the shipman. When the ship arrives, he is the sole survivor. He makes his way to his new home which conveniently resides across from that of Hutter’s own. There he becomes enraptured with Hutter’s wife and attempts to use his dark powers to ensnare her. In the meanwhile, he feasts on the locals whose conclusion is that they have been struck with the plague. Hutter’s wife, taking note from a book on vampires, learns that the only way to stop Orlock is to convince him into staying out past sunrise and concocts a passionate ruse to trap him.
The pace of the film may be tedious to some modern viewers however those willing to sit through its 94 minute length will witness several classic scenes, namely Orlock’s ascent into the bedroom of Hutter’s wife. Various storylines interweave throughout the narrative and it’s not always clear to the audience their relevance to the story. Murnau’s style frequently is to present a mélange of images to suggest or symbolize the greater truth to a character or the story itself. With all silent films, the visceral impact often outweighs its connection to the action in the storyline
The actor’s who portray Hutter, his wife and the other assorted characters throughout this film are commendable in their work however it is Max Schreck in his role as Orlock that stands out with remarkable achievement. With a wide-eyed, yet vapid stare and subtle movement, his performance attains an otherworldly presence. The most memorable scene in this film and the one that may still haunt viewers today is the image of Orlock rising stiffly from his coffin after arriving in Bremen. The special effect is rather simple but nonetheless, Schreck’s performance mixed with Albin Grau’s costume (which can only be described as rodent-like) creates a disturbing cinematic feat.
This is not Murnau at his best. For that, check out the seminal 1927 Sunrise which went on to win Best Picture at the 1st Academy Awards (and convinced distributors to release his vampire tale in the States two years later). Although only five years separate completion of Sunrise from Nosferatu there is a clear and distinct improvement in his direction (although the film may have had the added benefit of amazing cinematography from Charles Rosher and Karl Struss who would go on to work on The Yearling and Some Like It Hot, respectively). That being said, the film is a beautiful representation of German expressionism whose influence can be seen in works ranging from Fritz Lang to Hitchcock to Woody Allen to practically everything Tim Burton has been involved in.
This is all without mentioning the major impact Nosferatu had on the popularity of the vampire genre. Although much of the films that followed portrayed vampires in a sleeker and sexier embodiment, it was Murnau’s film that illustrated what a vampire movie could achieve. The inspiration of this film can be seen most notably in films such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Salem’s Lot, Underworld and, as one might expect, Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake Nosferatu. Also check out Shadow of the Vampire, which questions whether or not Max Schreck was not only acting like a vampire but actually was one in real life!
Sadly, Murnau died in a car accident in 1931 at 43 leaving behind several other phenomenal films credited to his name including Faust and The Last Laugh. However, Nosferatu remains his most famous and indelible work and the film will likely remain culturally significant so long as our fascination with (and nightmares of) vampires proves obstinate.