Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror [Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens] (1922)

Starring Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach, Georg H. Schnell, Ruth Landshoff, John Gottowt, Gustav Botz, Max Nemetz, Wolfgang Heinz

Directed by F. W. Murnau

Expectations: A favorite from my early film snob era.

Nosferatu still has the power to enthrall, entertain and permeate the room with its creepy tone. 90 years old, the film remains remarkably watchable, a fact attributable to the inspired direction from F.W. Murnau and a truly haunting vampire in Count Orlok (Max Schreck). The images of Orlok ascending the stairs in shadow that climax the film are so pure, simple and affecting that I doubt anyone, even a detractor, could walk away from the film without remembering them for a long time after. I haven’t seen Nosferatu in probably 10–12 years, and I think I appreciate it now more than ever.

The story is essentially a Cliff Notes version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with all the names changed and a considerably quicker pace. But the gist of the story is here, even if everything is shortened and characters are reduced to just the bare essentials. You could even argue that the Van Helsing character is completely superfluous in this telling of the tale (and you wouldn’t be wrong), but I love his scene in the middle of the film showing his students the Venus Fly Trap, so I can forgive this slight issue.

Anyway, as for any 90-year-old film, I’m sure that all the important things have already been said. As I make it my business to not say things like that, and instead provide you with my actual thoughts, I’ll do my best to say something new and relevant. This time through, I was especially struck by the lyricism of the language used in the intertitles. Instead of simply setting the scene, Nosferatu‘s titles paint a rich, dark landscape of light and shadow. With just a few words on-screen, Murnau paints a mental picture of phantoms inhabiting the night and shadows so deep they could swallow a man whole. It might seem strange to point this out, as novels have always traded in words alone, but the economy of words used, alongside the images, creates something unique, timeless and truly unforgettable.

The pacing is also quite modern, as the film moves along at a good clip. Murnau’s shot selection and angles create striking visuals to haunt your dreams, but he also never lingers on any one frame for too long. He’s got a story to tell! If I had made this, I would’ve been so in love with Nosferatu’s shadow on the wall that I’d have used and reused it relentlessly, but Murnau uses it only twice in quick succession. His visuals are always in service of the story and never flashy for the sake of being flashy. But even to consider that any of the visuals might have been flashy is a great testament to just how good they look. Murnau is one of the greats of early cinema, later going on to make one of the finest films of all time, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.

As a fan of special FX, I must also give mention to the wonderful makeup and FX on display here. As I mentioned above, Murnau never seeks to be flashy here, so the wild thrills of Georges Méliès don’t find their way into Nosferatu. Instead, everything is played in a subtle and realistic tone, therefore lending the images a sense of impending doom that cheap thrills would have shattered. The makeup work on Max Schreck is nothing short of stunning, creating one of cinema’s first monsters, and one that continues to survive to this day as an unsettling image. When Orlok ominously rises from his coffin, or when he slowly stretches his claws out to grasp the young maiden, it feels surreal, dream-like and utterly believable, and is directly opposed to the over-the-top acting of the other players. It’s not a coincidence that his subtle portrayal of the character inspired an entire film, Shadow of the Vampire, which supposed that Schreck really was a vampire.

I had a suspicion that I would still greatly enjoy Nosferatu, and I was on the money. I not only enjoyed it, I enjoyed it more than I ever have before. It’s a true gem of the silent era, and horror fans willing to give it a chance should definitely seek it out.

The whole movie! Gotta love public domain!