French new-wave director Jean-Luc Godard once said of his compatriot, the ascetic minimalist filmmaker Robert Bresson and his progenitor in certain elements of style, that the latter “was to French cinema as Mozart was to German music or Dostoevsky was to the Russian novel.” Likewise—on a less lofty aesthetic plane—Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors, F.W. Murnau‘s best-remembered film, was to horror movies as Buster Keaton‘s The General was to early comedy or 2001 was to sci-fi: a trend setter that forged the path for later essays in its respective genre. There may have been earlier vampire films, notably Feuillade‘s serial drama Les Vampires, but Nosferatu became the only very-well-known one at that point in cinematic history and thus had the greatest influence—presaging a slew of Dracula knockoffs down to the present day, from the 1931 Hollywood talkie starring the campy but effective Bela Lugosi, to Coppola‘s execrable 1992 nubile-young-vampiress softcore pornfest, to even more modernized 3-D permutations that would make a vampire turn over in its coffin.
Yes, its influence, for good or ill, cannot be denied. But 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? That, too, seems 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.
So many critics seem to regurgitate explanations of themes that anyone who didn’t nap during the film could flesh out. The late Roger Ebert, for example, wrote, “In a sense, Murnau’s film is about all of the things we worry about at 3 in the morning—cancer, war, disease, madness.” Not sure about that “in a sense,” because the film all but explicitly tells us (with prosaically translated intertitles) that that is what the film’s about. Nosferatu’s blood-sucking is directly compared with the pestilence of the Black Death and the vampire himself is cited as a “nightmare” that will haunt your dreams if you utter its name. Orlok thus represents a phantom of death seen inside a nightmare; whether he actually exists or not is illusory and this quandary feeds on our paranoia as viewers. Sounds like another iteration of the I-don’t-know-whether-this-is-dreams-or-reality theme.
Schreck does cut an impressive figure as Orlok, lurching forward slowly with his arms glued to his sides. And his claws—yowzers. The thought of being impaled on those may indeed be material enough for a nightmare. However, his facial appearance is a bit unfortunate, the hooked nose and ears looking like a Jewish caricature. It raises the question of a possibly latent anti-Semitism in Murnau. Seeing the rats scurry out of his coffin, I couldn’t help but think of the chilling German propaganda film Der Ewige Jude, endorsed by some of mankind’s real vampires.
The plot of the film will probably be familiar to most more-than-occasional movie watchers or book readers. For copyright reasons, they couldn’t use names from Stoker’s Dracula, so devotees of that novel have to settle for Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) instead. So Hutter, not Harker, is a real estate agent sent by his boss Knock (Alexander Granach)—maybe it should have been Cracked because he looks like he’s foaming at the mouth like a rabid animal—to Orlok’s, not Dracula’s, castle in the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania. Our protagonist’s travel plans spark the consternation of his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder), whose neck is soon to top N’s list of midnight menu delicacies as we learn when Hutter presents a picture of her to the turban-chapeauxed host at his dinner table. “Your wife has a very lovely neck,” he insinuates. This is also part of the scene in which Hutter pricks his finger, causing N to leap toward it like a not-yet-weaned rehab patient who is in the presence of cocaine for the first time in months. It’s pretty creepy as portrayed here, though I must say that I miss the line associated with the counterpart scene from the Bela Lugosi 1931 version: “I never drink . . . wine.” And unlike Lugosi, at this moment Schreck seems to lunge forward in a way that’s more clumsy than sinister.
The romantic melodrama between Thomas and Ellen—a chaste bond set against the sickening doom of the creature—is convincingly conveyed, if somewhat purple. Murnau would use a similar thematic device in his later and greater film, Sunrise: a Song of Two Humans, about dark times that have descended on a married couple’s relationship. Interestingly, the mechanical walk of the man in Sunrise, who is prepared to murder his wife and run off with a city-dwelling floozy (before his redemption), closely resembles Orlok’s stiff gait. The volitions of both are compelling them to kill: they are enslaved by will. The character of the man in Sunrise, though, exhibits a multilayered psychological complexity and character development, brought out through his repentance and salvation. The somewhat foppish Hutter seems unidimensional by comparison. Admittedly, that could be part of the point since the Hutters, as well as the Igor-like Knock, represent little more than pawns in the dark game of an undead puppeteer.
Despite my few reservations, the roles are generally very well-played. They even helped me forget about the putrid new-agey music in the modern soundtrack (the original score unfortunately is mostly lost), featuring pan-flute melodies sounding like tunes that John Tesh might have composed for a Halloween special. That is, the music really isn’t frightening at all, unless thinking about warm gas trapped between your butt cheeks scares you. On that note, I wish Kino would do something about its scores. They reek with a capital R. Too bad, because a great score can do so much to establish the unsettling aura of a horror flick, especially a silent one. Rather than this tooting fluff, I might have wished for snippets of classical pieces about death, like orchestrations of Liszt’s Thrénodie and Funérailles or Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata.
But if you turn the music down a tad and focus on Murnau’s directorial eye for detail, I guess it’s hard to be too disappointed. Murnau’s camera creates a claustrophobic sense of the oppressiveness of evil. Behind a castle wall, we join Hutter in witnessing his impending (though, of course, temporary) conversion to the dark side. The façades of the Gothic-y buildings are austerely impressive too, indeed looking like they blend right into the Transylvanian landscape. And when Murnau points his lens up at the topmost reaches of Orlok’s new estate in the fictional German town of Wisborg, we think of the ghoulish, yet majestic, creature holding the village in his clutches.
Nosferatu‘s macabre visual flair is doubtless mesmerizing, though its relatively sequential narrative to my mind lacks the complexity of the interwoven flashbacks in, again, Caligari or The Phantom Carriage. Caligari, in particular, seems to me unjustly overshadowed by its vampiric successor in the current critical canon, given the former’s more contorted and original expressionistic sets (like something out of Munch), pioneering use of a twist ending, subtler use of metaphor, and more nuanced characterization. Nevertheless, the position of Nosferatu as a landmark film in early horror is ensured, and it has more than enough to hold one entranced on a first watch, even if subsequent viewings (I’ve now seen it three times) make it seem a bit on the tired and predictable side. Be that as it may, if you’re a horror fan, and you haven’t seen it, you should probably stop living your life as a zombie, go to Netflix, and stream it right now. After watching it, you may be horrified to find yourself wanting to cover your neck up with a scarf while you sleep.
Joe’s Grade: B+