Thursday, November 8, 2012

Nosferatu (1922) Review

Nosferatu poster
Director: F.W. Murnau
Stars: Max Schreck, Alexander Granach, Gustav von Wangenheim
Genre: Horror, German Expressionism

I'm posting this review on Bram Stoker's 165th birthday, which is today, the day of this post, November 8th. Without his novel, Dracula, the world would be without many great films, including this one, Nosferatu. I believe I speak for all horror fans when I say, thank you Mr. Stoker.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. One of the most well-known early horror films and a big name in the genre of German Expressionism.

I often remind myself to be thankful that films like Nosferatu, or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are available to watch. So many of these great films in early cinema could have easily been lost, and many have been. Just looking at Wikipedia's list of lost films makes me want to cry. Who knows how many of those films would have been considered masterpieces if they still survived. Surely some of them must have been amazing films, and had they survived could have even changed the way we look at film today. It's similar to the Library of Alexandria; out of all those hundreds of thousands of books that were lost in the fire, just imagine all the great ones, just imagine what literature would be like if that library had never burned down.

So, when I watch great early films such as Nosferatu, I can't help but say to myself "We're so lucky that this film survived." Nosferatu actually came very close to being forever lost. Florence Stoker, wife of Bram Stoker (author of Dracula), actually sued the production company behind Nosferatu and won. The court had ordered to have all copies of the film burned; luckily there was one copy already in circulation around the world.

If you can think about the millions of lost books, the hundreds if not thousands of lost films, and all the other works of art lost in time, without shuttering, then you have no soul.

Orlok's shadow in Nosferatu

Moving on to the actually review, do I really have to summarize the plot? Everyone knows the Dracula story in some form or another. This film was an unofficial adaptation of Stoker's Dracula, hence the many name changes of characters; Count Dracula became Count Orlok, Renfield became Knock, etc., even the word Vampire was changed to Nosferatu.

I thought the pacing to be really good in here, especially the build-up to seeing Count Orlok. Before arriving at the castle Thomas Hutter stops at an inn, and when he mentions that he is going to Orlok's castle they all gasp and shriek. Then, even the coach that he was traveling in refuses to take him directly to the castle and instead drops him off down the road. Even just the sight of the castle itself is great. All this build towards a great introduction to the character of Count Orlok.

And what a character he is! Orlok's design is as amazing as it is terrifying. Count Orlok, to me, is still one of the most horrifying looking horror characters till this day. I mean, just look at him, he looks like a fucking vampire! With his long fingers and pointed ears. The make-up and appearance is great and Max Schreck does a fabulous job playing the creeping vampire.

Count Orlok on the boat in Nosferatu

Along with a scary character, Nosferatu also has a very scary atmosphere. Mix Expressionism with Gothicism and you get a truly great atmosphere. The Gothic castle, the Expressionistic use of shadows and light, the poetic writing; it all comes together wonderfully. This film still manages to scare me today. 

As I've already hinted at, the sets are great. Nosferatu is based a bit more in reality than other films of the genre, e.g., The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and it opts for a Gothic look rather than a surreal one. Which is good. The castle's interiors are great, the castle's exterior is pretty good too, and everything just looks really good. Even the scene on the ship has a kind of murky terror look and feel.

Orlok's coffin in Nosferatu

Henrik Galeen (The Golem, Waxworks) did a wonderful job adapting the novel into a screenplay, and a very detailed screenplay at that. The director, F.W. Murnau, followed Galeen's instructions very closely on camera positioning, lighting, etc. So Henrik Galeen played a much larger role in the making of Nosferatu than his credit may suggest.

Two legendary cinematographers did the camera work, Fritz Arno Wagner and Gunther Krampf. Names that have lent their talents to other great film such as Destiny, M, Warning Shadows, and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse for Wagner, and The Hands of Orlac and Pandora's Box for Krampf. These two cinematographer's talents shine in Nosferatu, with wonderful cinematography across the board.

Orlok rises from his coffin on the boat in Nosferatu

You may notice some actors from other German Expressionist films, and save for Schreck's masterful performance as Count Orlock and Alexander Granach's mad performance of Knock, the rest of the acting is only decent. I wouldn't call it bad by any means, but it's nothing extraordinary.  Maybe the other actors only seem dull because of Schreck's greatness. It's the type of over-acting you'd expect from most silent films, but if you don't mind the over-acting then it shouldn't be a problem. 

The score, originally composed by Hans Erdmann, however most reissues use slightly modified scores, is fantastic. I loved the haunting use of drums in the version I've watched.

There are tons of memorable scenes in here and some truly unique moments. The film also has a sort of grainy, newsreel look to it that makes it extra creepy since it makes it feel realistic...in a very fantastical way. Very similar to the appearance of Night of the Living Dead. Especially that shot towards the end when Orlok is hunched over the girl on the bed and he kind of looks directly at the camera; it looks like something you'd find on some cryptozoology website. Chilling. 

The truly terrifying Count Orlok

The film also makes good use of color tints. They help to differentiate between day and night (a feat that can be challenging in black and white films) and they also help set particular moods.

There's really not much bad to be said about Nosferatu. I have my nit-picks but nothing really dire. Like that werewolf dog that everyone was so terrified of, that was pretty silly. But there are very few flaws in this film and it really does hold up even now. 

Nosferatu is a true classic. The film that set the mold and the standard for all vampire movies that followed. Recommended for anyone and everyone. Make sure you get a good version with a good soundtrack and as clear a quality as possible and preferably one with color tinting present, and you'll have yourself a hell of a good time. Stay tuned for more vampire film review in the coming days.

5/5 stars

Purchase Nosferatu on Amazon: DVD - Two Disc DVD - Stream - German Horror Classics Collection
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