By Cleaver Patterson.
Some films have, since their first release, entered into the realms of mythical cinema. Whether due to their technical achievements, performances or simply by dint of that inexplicable quality that makes the film viewing experience magical, these movies have outlived their contemporaries to become the stuff of legend. Though the inclusion of many films within this hallowed group may be open to debate, there are those that undeniably deserve their place whatever your taste or preference. Director F. W. Murnau’s revered silent masterpiece Nosferatu is a case-in-point. Re-released this autumn by Eureka! Entertainment as part of their The Masters of Cinema collection, this is a work which should appeal to anyone interested in film, whether from an artistic or historical standpoint, or merely for pure entertainment.
Eager to impress his employer, enthusiastic real-estate dealer Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) leaves his young wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) behind in the German town of Wisborg, and travels to the secluded Transylvanian castle of the reclusive Count Orloc (Max Schreck) in order to complete a lucrative business deal. What happens there is both horrifying and disastrous, having long-reaching repercussions not just for Hutter and Ellen, but also for the innocent inhabitants of the peaceful town of Wisborg.
In the history of cinema, films that have proved their longevity are usually those encompassing qualities that last in the viewer’s consciousness long after they finish, revealing new and deeper detail no matter how often you watch them. Nosferatu – or to give the film its full title, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror) is a trip which reveals endless visual delights and psychological detours with each repeated visit. From the mesmerizing performances of the central characters to its startling expressionist images, watching this film is as disquieting an experience today as it must have been in the early 1920s.
Though Nosferatu contains many memorable qualities—from a symphonic score by Hans Erdmann that binds the story’s various strands seamlessly together, to Henrik Galeen’s screenplay (which due to copyright obligations could not retell Bram Stoker’s original tale of vampirism as it was, but had to reinterpret its essence)—it remains, without doubt, the performance of Max Schreck (whose surname appropriately translates as ‘terror’) that has made the film a cinematic landmark. Reputedly a vampire in real-life (a rumor most likely promoted by some savvy PR executive) Schreck, with his gaunt features and receding hairline, was perfectly suited to portraying sinister and disturbing characters, which he did frequently throughout his career. At over six feet in height, his presence as the deadly Orloc dominates the film from his first appearance at the door of his decaying fortress deep amongst the Transylvanian mountains. Schreck’s visualization of the legendary vampire nobleman is one of the most iconic images of horror cinema: with his sunken eyes, bald head and hook-like fangs he is more akin to the vicious nocturnal blood drinker Kurt Barlow played by Reggie Nalder in Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1979) than Christopher Lee’s matinee idol interpretation in Hammer’s Dracula (1958).
Following the count’s initial meeting with the unfortunate Hutter, his subsequent appearances throughout the film, culminating as his elongated shadow ascends the staircase to Ellen’s bedroom, say more in their wordless silence than any amount of verbose dialogue ever could. Coupled with the performances of Gustav von Wangenheim as Hutter and Greta Schröder as Ellen, you have what tantamounts to a love triangle between the three, played out within the setting of the Orloc’s castle, and later Hutter and Ellen’s hometown of Wisborg. Across their paths flit an array of supporting grotesques who make the imaginary German setting all the more unnerving by their accentuated mannerisms and appearance, so common to silent cinema but which often seem unnatural and overemphasized to modern audiences.
Highlighting the performances of the characters are the settings against which the story unfolds. Murnau’s film used real German locations for much of the exterior filming, adding an extra dilapidated European authenticity to the proceedings that later American and British versions could not hope to replicate. With areas of northern Slovakia doubling for Transylvania, and the German town of Wismar serving as Wisborg, scenes such as that where a group of coffin bearers are seen carrying the bodies of plague victims through the cobbled streets of the town are haunting in a realism tinted with an air of uncanny disjointedness. As the film unfolds on the screen, viewers well-versed in the celluloid history of Bram Stoker’s vampire lord will recognize endless images that have been borrowed and reused over the years. From the hellish carriage that collects Hutter to take him to Orloc’s home, which would later reappear to transport a quartet of unsuspecting travellers to Dracula’s remote castle in Hammer’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), to the haunting Mary Celeste-like image of the ship that carries Orloc to Wisborg and would be seen again in Werner Herzog’s version of the story over half a century later, Murnau laid the foundations of the filmic path that others would later follow.
Over ninety years since its initial release, Murnau’s gothic tour De force remains a mesmeric piece of cinema, and something few other films, of any era or genre, could hope to emulate.
Cleaver Patterson is film critic and writer based in London.
The newly restored edition of F. W. Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu was shown at FILM4 FrightFest on August 25th 2013, and will be released in UK cinemas on October 25th, 2013. The film will be released in the UK on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray Steelbook on November 18th, 2013. A host of extras accompanying the new high-definition restoration will include audio commentaries with historians David Kalat and R. Dixon Smith and critic Brad Stevens, a documentary The Language of Shadows on Murnau’s early career and the making of Nosferatu, newly translated English subtitles with original German inter-titles and a fifty six page booklet of writings and rare images.
Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), a retelling of the story starring Klaus Kinski in the title role, will show at the BFI on London’s South Bank, and cinemas throughout the UK on November 1st, 2013.