Director: F. W. Murnau
Cast: Max Schreck, Greta SchrÃ¶der, Ruth Landshoff
Synopsis: Vampire Count Orlok expresses interest in a new residence and real estate agent Hutter’s wife. Silent classic based on the story “Dracula.”
Given cinema’s reliance on literature as a primary source of material, it’s something of a surprise to discover that it wasn’t until 25 years after the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that Nosferatu, the first film based upon the novel, was made. Even then, Stoker’s widow battled hard to prevent it from being released, eventually winning a court case which resulted in the instruction that every copy of the movie be destroyed. Fortunately for the sake of cinema history, the widow Stoker’s efforts proved futile: not only did Nosferatu survive, but the titles of some versions (including the one reviewed here) later replaced the character names from the original film with those from the novel. While F. W. Murnau’s brilliantly realised adaptation recreated the major episodes from the story with which we’re all familiar today, it bears absolutely no resemblance to the conventional depiction of the Prince of Darkness. In fact, the vampire Nosferatu, as portrayed by the enigmatic Max Shreck, while undeniably sinister, appears almost comical at times.
Much to the sorrow of his new bride Ellen (Greta Schroeder), the newlywed Hutter/Jonathan Harker (Gustav van Wangenheim) is sent by his eccentric boss Knock/Renfield (Alexander Granach) to Transylvania to arrange for the purchase of a house by Count Orlok/Dracula (Schreck). While Hutter grows increasingly uneasy about his strange host’s nocturnal habits, his wife suffers a somnambulistic nightmare in which she senses her husband is in peril. However, having seen a photograph of Ellen, Orlok’s interest in Hutter’s blood diminishes enough for him to set sail for Bremen, where he has purchased the abandoned building across the road from the Hutter’s own modest home.
By the time Orlok’s ship arrives in Bremen the entire crew are dead, a mystery blamed by the city councillors on the dreaded plague, which is also assumed to be the cause of a rash of deaths following Orlok’s arrival. The victims of the plague all suffer the same mysterious symptoms – two wounds on their throat.
Watching Nosferatu’s early scenes, in which Hutter encounters a number of jolly rustic types who grow suddenly sombre at the mention of Count Orlok, it’s apparent how much the Hammer horror movies of the 1950s were influenced by Nosferatu, even though they chose as a template for their own interpretation of the man himself Hollywood’s re-imagining of Dracula as a suave, cloak-wearing gentleman of the night. Murnau’s vampire is a slight, rat-like creature, as far removed from the debonair Christoper Lee as it is possible to get. His fangs resemble the front teeth of a rat, his ears are bat-like, and his head perfectly bald. He’s a frighteningly convincing creation, his mere presence commanding an atmosphere in every scene in which he makes an appearance.
Nosferatu is filled with iconic images – Orlok silhouetted against the rigging of the ship whose crew he has systematically devoured, rising stiff-backed from his coffin, climbing the stairs to his victim’s room, his talon-like nails and misshapen head, his ascent charted by the movement of his shadow on the wall – that are embedded in the psyche of any true movie fan, and which make watching the movie a little like finally meeting a long-cherished idol in the flesh. Which also means, of course, that you can’t ultimately stop yourself from feeling a little disappointed by the reality. These memorable images never coalesce into anything approaching a suspenseful, emotionally-engaging story.
That Nosferatu fails to grip the viewer may partly be due to its age – no doubt it scared the crap out of audiences 90 years ago, but time has robbed it of its shock value so that modern audiences are more likely to devote their attention to its less assured aspects such as plot and characterisation, both of which are rudimentary. So, while Nosferatu deserves its status as one of silent cinema’s classic horror movies it’s very much a film of its time and will perhaps disappoint preconceived expectations of greatness.
(Reviewed 2nd August 2012)