by Matt Levine
If I had to choose the film movements that have affected me more than any others, it would unquestionably be the Japanese New Wave of the 1960s and ’70s and German Expressionism of the silent era. Why I feel a particular affinity for these styles is another question of course—a matter of personal taste and psychology that writing reviews might shed fleeting light upon, though it can’t answer it entirely. All I know is the gruesome, distorted shadows of films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Faust (1926), and Nosferatu (1922) have more sinister beauty in them than the majority of cinematic images—the nightmares we witness in them truly seem to give rise to a pervasive evil. In Nosferatu—arguably the finest example of German Expressionism, which (along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) practically birthed the horror genre as we know it today—cinema encountered one of its greatest villains, and one of its most haunting nightmares.
Director: F.W. Murnau
Producers: Enrico Dieckmann, Albin Grau
Writer: Henrik Galeen
Cinematographers: Fritz Arno Wagner, Günther Krampf
Music: Hans Erdmann (original score)
Cast: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Georg H. Schnell, Ruth Landshoff, Gustav Botz, Alexander Granach, John Gottowt, Max Nemetz
Premiere: February 17, 1922—Netherlands
US Distributor: Film Arts Guild (original release)
Although Nosferatu’s producers were unable to obtain the rights to Bram Stoker’s now-legendary 1897 novel Dracula, that hardly stopped them from making a thinly-veiled adaptation in which the names are changed but the story generally remains the same. As in Stoker’s novel, we have a carefree real-estate agent (here named Thomas Hutter as opposed to Dracula’s Jonathan Harker) tasked with visiting a sinister count in Transylvania in order to sell him property in Hutter’s hometown (the fictional north German harbor of Wisborg). Count Orlok (Max Schreck) strikes fear into the hearts of nearby villagers, with his immense decrepit castle, nocturnal hours, and the foreboding wolves that prowl his estate. He frightens the typically aloof Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) as well, especially when he tries to suck blood from a small cut on Hutter’s finger. When Orlok spies a locket containing a picture of Hutter’s beloved, Ellen (Greta Schröder), he becomes instantly obsessed with her, eagerly awaiting his voyage to Wisborg and his chance to plunge his fangs into her throat.
There’s no Van Helsing to be seen here, no Lucy Westenra or any of her suitors, but otherwise the plot is mostly parallel to Stoker’s. It was, in fact, so obviously lifted from the novel that Stoker’s estate sued Nosferatu’s producers and won—thus bankrupting the newly-formed Prana Film studio, founded in 1921 by Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau, after only one movie. The verdict, in fact, forced Prana to destroy every print of Nosferatu in existence—though overseas duplicates allowed the film to survive. The most interesting departure from the novel is Nosferatu’s repeated allusions to the Great Death, or the inescapable “deathbird” (as the intertitles call it) which accompanies times of great devastation. Though the Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe in the 14th century, Nosferatu seems to imagine its devastating recurrence, symbolized by the ghastly, rodent-like Count Orlok, who arrives in Germany aboard a schooner overrun with rats. The wave of deaths which take place in Wisborg late in the film could be caused by these rats and the hideous disease they spread; or, more unnervingly, they could be the work of Orlok himself, a wave of annihilation manifesting humanity’s worst nightmares. This theme is even more explicit in Werner Herzog’s masterful 1979 remake Nosferatu the Vampyre, but it’s fascinating in the original as well—a representation of death and pestilence that only expounds the movie’s visceral chills.
Count Orlok is an astonishingly gruesome vision—with his long, thin talons, vacant beady eyes, bald misshapen skull, and dagger-like fangs, he seems to have walked out of a child’s scream-inducing nightmare. Max Schreck is so immersed in the role it’s no wonder that the dark comedy Shadow of the Vampire (2000) posited him as a vampire in real life. Actually, Schreck was a well-known theatre actor who had appeared in several of Bertolt Brecht’s Expressionist plays; what’s astonishing about his performance in Nosferatu beyond its immediate visceral ugliness is its morbid grace, the ethereal movements of his body. Schreck’s performance during Nosferatu’s bittersweet climax is something to behold: as Orlok shrinks from the sunlight, his arms fruitlessly trying to fend off impending death, it seems more like ballet than the style of emotive silent acting to which we’re accustomed. (Director F.W. Murnau helped enable this fluid sense of movement by using a metronome to guide his actors on set.) This has always been part of the appeal of the Dracula prototype—his grace as well as his violence, his loneliness along with his villainy—and Nosferatu conveys that more ably than many of its successors.
Schreck’s astonishing performance aside, Nosferatu must be deemed F.W. Murnau’s triumph. It seems incredible to me that German Expressionism spawned two of my favorite film directors, Murnau and Fritz Lang; the sense of experimentation and painterly beauty they achieved (along with several other German directors of the silent era) encapsulates how groundbreaking this cinematic movement was as a whole. Murnau’s style would become even more audacious and stunning in later masterpieces like The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926), and Sunrise (1927), but in Nosferatu we glimpse some of the first steps towards this adventurous aesthetic. There are numerous stylistic tricks which remain impressive for any era of film history (but especially for 1921): a seabound traveling shot which ominously approaches the ship upon which Orlok’s coffin is stowed; close-ups of carnivorous plants, devouring their insect prey in the manner of vampires; the dance of shadows along walls and ceilings as Orlok approaches Ellen, like a testament to the sinister capabilities of the film apparatus and its shadows; and maybe most hauntingly, a surreal vision (which appears as a film negative, the inverted light morphing eerily on the celluloid) of Orlok’s carriage ushering Hutter towards his castle (and certain doom).
But there are more modest wonders in Murnau’s aesthetic as well. Though the pace of film editing was becoming more rapid in the late teens and early ‘20s, it still often lingered on distanced master shots in which all performers would be contained in a single shot, with only occasional inserts and close-ups; Nosferatu, on the other hand, cuts much more speedily (some shots last less than a second) and relies on evocative inserts to establish a dreadful tone. Murnau’s compositional use of frames-within-frames (at a time when irises and other forms of masking often served to highlight specific screen areas) is also breathtaking. At one point, Orlok scuttles through an arched doorway into Hutter's room, the narrow vertical frames of the doorway isolating the hideous vampire, making him appear even leaner and more skeletal. The effect might sound simple, but it suggests a complete awareness of the film frame and the distorted shapes it creates, which was far ahead of its time (Hitchcock, for one, was a noted admirer of Murnau).
Maybe by now, almost a century later, in a media era when vampires have become fodder for both tween romances and artsy independent films, Nosferatu’s influence seems less jarring. The thematic subtexts of most vampire stories—that vampires represent eternal human suffering, or that cold logicality can be vanquished by something more ominously supernatural, or that virtue and religious piousness mean little in the face of all-consuming evil—have become commonplace (though intermittently fascinating). But if Nosferatu’s bracing effect seems diluted in 2014, we should remember that many of the thematic and stylistic tropes of vampire movies can be traced directly back to Murnau’s film. Far from a dry relic of cinema history, Nosferatu remains chilling and exhilaratingly creative; you can tell that Murnau and his collaborators relish telling this story vividly onscreen. And for those who claim that the film is no longer scary, I dare you to observe Count Orlok rising slowly from his coffin in the bowels of a decimated schooner—his snakelike fingers pressed against his side, his almost translucent eyes returning your horrorstruck gaze—and not revisit this monstrosity later, sound asleep, in a nightmare.
This weekend's screenings at the Trylon microcinema will feature live musical accompaniment from Fate's Palette.