For all its technical wizardry (including meticulously crafted iris shots), eerie chiaroscuro effects (the shadow in the stairwell is indelibly etched in my memory), and virtuosic performances (particularly Max Schreck in the lead role of Count Orlok), Nosferatu fails to heat my blood or stimulate my mind to the extent that some other iconic, but probably less well-known, movies in the silent horror genre have, like the more subtle and cerebral The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (one of my favorite all-time films) or the metaphysical Swedish film The Phantom Carriage. Is Nosferatu a very good and wonderfully atmospheric film? Yes, I think that too is beyond doubt. It’s just that technique aside, it doesn’t seem to have all that much substance to it—you know, the sort of stuff that keeps you up at night pondering multiple levels of meaning. I’m not quite seeing the greatness of it.
Broken Blossoms, directed by one of cinema’s technical pioneers D.W. Griffith, illustrates why the creation of art shouldn’t concern one race apologizing to another for the mistakes of history—namely because the result can’t help but be politically correct pablum. Sure, maybe Griffith had gone too far in Birth of a Nation, depicting the KKK as white-steed-riding warriors who saved the nation from the “evils” of miscegenation. But hey, it’s a viewpoint—albeit a distorted one—and, at the risk of stating the obvious, he has a right to express it under our Constitution without being coerced by resentnicks into issuing an apology in filmic form.
Swedish cinema is sometimes considered synonymous with the films of Ingmar Bergman, but even a genius must have his influences. In the beginning, there was Victor Sjöström’s eerie landmark silent film The Phantom Carriage, which elevated early horror to new heights of surrealistic complexity.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may not be the first horror film of all time, but it undoubtedly is one of the first to have a major influence on later movies in the genre. Directed by Robert Wiene (whose other films include Fear and Raskolnikow), Caligari exemplifies the expressionist style of silent movie-making that gained a foothold in Germany in the early 1920s and that would inspire the better-remembered Nosferatu (1922) based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Though not adapted from a work of literature, Caligari set the bar in capturing the macabre on camera, managing to be both cerebral and mesmerizingly creepy.