by David Cornelius
Watching F.W. Murnau’s silent classic “Nosferatu” has always felt a little less like entertainment and more like homework. This is a film that I admire and appreciate, yet it is not one to which I will rush when Halloween rolls around and I’m looking for some dark thrills.Of course, this is all a matter of personal taste; “Nosferatu” is so well-regarded that it’s often named as the best vampire film ever produced. But I have to say that while I regard it well, it comes to me too coldly, a story whose rhythms aren’t quite in check. It’s a visual marvel and a inventive landmark in filmmaking history, but it’s also a bit too empty.
"An inventive, if unfulfilling, screen introduction to the Dracula legend."
The film’s backstory has been well documented before, so I’ll avoid detail and give you the bare bones overview. Murnau, looking to be the first to adapt Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” to the screen, found himself denied permission by Stoker’s widow. Murnau went ahead anyway, changing character names and a few settings but little else. Mrs. Stoker, outraged, sued and won, with the courts demanding that all prints and negatives of the film be destroyed. Obviously, some survived, and the film went on to be seen as both an interesting alternate take on the Dracula legend and another vital entry in the German Expressionist film movement.
For those familiar with Stoker’s famed character, here’s a chance to see something entirely new. The vampire - renamed Count Orlok (or Orlock, depending on which print you’re watching) and played by Max Scheck - is far from the seductive mystery man made famous by Bela Lugosi. Instead, he is a strange, almost alien being; the filmmakers here take the vampire-as-animal idea quite literally. Schreck, who is only on screen for nine minutes, makes a powerful impact when made up in his pointy ears, pointier teeth, bald cap, and long, eerie fingers. Creature of the night, indeed.
It’s Schreck’s appearance that is most well known about “Nosferatu,” and for good reason. It’s his scenes that remain the best. All Murnau needs to do is show us this strange little man, and we recoil just a bit. Later, in a scene that has Johannes Hutter (Gustav von Waggenheim), the film’s Harker stand-in, discovering Orlok asleep (dead asleep, ahem) in his coffin, we discover the true horror of the character; it’s a wonderful moment, a rare effective creep-out bit for the film. The movie’s final scenes are its most famous - they’re the ones that finally show Orlok creeping around the house, his shadow stretching out into inhuman form, ready to finally strike.
Yet these great moments are too few and far between. Again, this may come down to a matter of taste, but the story simply takes too long to get where it’s going. The long slog to Transylvania, where Hutter must visit Orlok to close some real estate business, does a fine job of setting up mood and tone - we watch as Hutter, a modern man, descends ever so slowly into the fairy tale world of the old country - but then it just keeps setting up and setting up. How much footage of Hutter and his true love must we see before we understand how delightfully enamored they are? Too much, I’m afraid.
Even after we (finally!) meet Orlok, the story continues to stall. It gets interesting only in fits, trailing off just when things start to get good. Consider the Professor Bulwer character, who is pretty much our Van Helsing yet gets relegated to background status. As presented here, Bulwer is entirely unnecessary to the plot, so his brief appearances act only as filler, a quaint distraction that upsets the flow of the story. The movie simply doesn’t know what to do with this man.
But by taking Van Helsing/Bulwer out of the equation, we do get to watch an ingenious spin play itself out, with Ellen (Greta Schroeder-Matray), the Mina character, being the one to lure Orlok to his demise. For a version that downplays the overall sexual undertones of the vampire story, it’s nice to see it pick up the slack by allowing the female lead to be the ultimate hero. (Oh, you’re sure to find sexual undertones here, just not on the level we’ve seen in countless Stoker adaptations since.)
The real reason we watch “Nosferatu,” however, has nothing to do with story. This film, like so many Expressionist pieces, is all about the visual. Albin Grau’s art and costume design is a feast for the eyes, accentuated by F.A. Wagner’s careful cinematography. Disregard the sluggish, overly padded story, and you’ll see how the look of a film can work wonders in creating the right mood. With only a few exceptions, you could catch any frame of this movie and understand the sense of dread that’s implied.Of course, none of this would be possible without Murnau, who’s well remembered as one of the leaders of silent filmmaking. (His other works include “The Last Laugh,” “Faust,” and “Sunrise.”) Here, he creates some of the most indelible images in film history. It’s a shame, then, that his story doesn’t quite hit the same high notes as the sights; without the solid thrills to back them up, the visuals of “Nosferatu” become museum pieces. Greater thrills would be found in the later “Dracula” movies. Here, there is only room for appreciation.
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originally posted: 10/02/05 06:14:33