Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie Des Grauens
Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 09 January 2008
Source Eureka!/Masters of Cinema DVD
F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is, along with Battleship Potemkin and Metropolis, arguably the most widely seen and recognisable work of non-comic silent cinema. The reasons for this are twofold: firstly, Murnau’s film is directly based on a familiar, accessible and enduring work of fiction, namely Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula.’ And secondly, the film is structured around a series of instantly recognisable, unforgettable images, scenes and sequences which have become an integral part of the cinematic lexicon, mimicked and parodied in over a century of horror movies, comic books, music videos, comedy sketches and commercials.
But does Nosferatu deserve its reputation as one of the signature works of pre-sound cinema? It lacks the emotional weight of Murnau’s own Sunrise, or the globetrotting, epic scale of his Faust. It didn’t revolutionise the form to the extent Potemkin or Birth of a Nation did, nor does it create a unique, instantly recognisable other world such as those seen in Metropolis or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It is on the surface a more straightforward, simpler work than any of these, relying on more primal human responses: fear, revulsion and dread. And yet it endures, its reputation undimmed.
The history behind Nosferatu, as fictionalised in the somewhat underwhelming Shadow of the Vampire, is almost as fascinating as the film itself. 1920’s Germany was a country reeling from the twin blows of war and reparation, struggling for a national identity amid spiralling inflation, industrial upheaval and outbreaks of famine, cholera and Spanish influenza. Murnau and his producer-designer partner, the mysterious Albin Grau, embarked on the project without first securing the rights to Stoker’s source novel—intellectual property was a different story back then. Filming took place throughout Germany and Slovakia, under the supervision of the new, but already struggling Prana-Film distribution company, for whom Nosferatu would be the first and final production: the company folded in the wake of a lawsuit brought by Stoker’s estate.
For the first three acts, Henrik Galeen’s script holds close to Stoker’s original: hapless young real estate agent Hutter departs from his bride-to-be, travelling to the Carpathian mountains at the behest of the enigmatic Count Orlok. Upon arrival at Orlok’s castle, the young man is seized by a sensation of unshakeable dread, which only deepens when he meets his grim, sadistic host. The deal is signed, and Orlok departs for Hutter’s home town of Wisborg, leaving the young man stranded in the wilderness. Realising that the town, and his love, are in dire peril, Hutter makes his way home cross country, while the Count travels by sea, sealed into an earth-filled coffin.
The film’s most enduring image, unsurprisingly, is that of Max Shreck in full makeup as Count Orlok, with his ratlike fangs and clawed hands, jerking gait and wide, unblinking stare. Excessive familiarity has leeched some of the innate dreadfulness from Shreck’s visage, but it’s still an authentically gruesome apparition, repulsive and utterly alien. But despite his ugliness, Orlok still holds an unaccountable fascination for all those who encounter him: Hutter and his wife Ellen, and most notably Hutter’s predecessor, the hopelessly insane Knock. There is, as with all vampire stories, an unmistakeable air of sexual deviance surrounding Orlok, but here the threat is one of grotesque animal attraction rather than the louche seductiveness of, say, Christopher Lee. And it is unmistakeably homoerotic in nature—the appearance of Orlok in Hutter’s bedchamber is an image of pure predatory malice, the young man’s ensuing dread perhaps a manifestation of his own transgressive guilt. Murnau was himself a closeted homosexual, and in the character of Knock we recognise some of the attendant self disgust the director must have suffered—imprisoned as a lunatic and completely obsessed with his Master’s arrival, Knock escapes only to be persecuted by an angry mob who blame him for the plague which has afflicted the town. We see the townsfolk muttering and gossiping about the fugitive, before forming a posse and cornering him, fingers pointed in righteous retribution.
The plague is the film’s most notable departure from its source material: in Stoker’s novel, and the majority of ensuing vampire lore, Dracula’s bite causes the victim to become undead themselves. In Galeen’s adaptation, however, the bite induces a sickness which then spreads on its own, carried by plague rats. This is the shadow of the ‘Deathbird’, a poetic invention of Galeen’s which stands for Orlok’s malign influence, his supernatural control over the natural world and its inhabitants. It’s a powerful, lyrical image; for the filmmakers and their original audiences, it must have felt as though their entire country was suffering under such a shadow. For the modern viewer, the plague may seem an unnecessary addition to the story, less effective and unsettling than Dracula’s ability to subsume others to his dark will. But to contemporary audiences the crawling rats, and the plague which follows them, would have been all too familiar, and infinitely more disturbing.
In one respect the film’s climax matches Stoker’s novel—although there is a Van Helsing figure, he is very much a minor character here, with no impact on the story. But in Nosferatu as in ‘Dracula’ it is the demon’s obsession with Hutter’s wife, and her willing sacrifice, which is to prove his undoing. The nominal hero, having raced across half a continent to reclaim his bride, proves ultimately ineffectual, leaving his wife to face her fear alone. But she seduces Orlok and holds him, keeping him distracted in her bedchamber until sunrise. Her life is forfeit, but the monster is vanquished and the shadow lifted.
Perhaps because it is more thematically complex and ambiguous, Nosferatu suffers more than Murnau’s other great works for its enforced silence. The intertitles in the film are some of the most detailed and poetic ever written, drawing on pages from a diary, a book on vampire lore and even the ship’s log, but despite their originality they tend to jar the viewer out of the unfolding visual narrative. This, coupled with the necessary bleakness of the story, tends to enforce a certain separation between viewer and characters which other silent films manage to avoid. Murnau handles his scenes of horror with flawless stylistic precision, but the human story tends to lose out in the process.
Nonetheless, Nosferatu deserves its position in the pantheon of cinema classics, if only for its almost single-handed invention of the horror genre as we recognise it today. Though its sharper edges may have been dulled by time and cultural overfamiliarity, as an exploration of the mechanics and psychology of fear Nosferatu remains unparalleled.