Today: July 20, 2024

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

We are unbelievably lucky to be able to see Nosferatu at all.  This is famously the earliest film adaptation of Bram Stoker‘s Dracula, although not exactly officially.  Director F.W. Murnau didn’t get the rights to adapt the book but just went ahead anyway, changing all the names to hide the fact.  (He’d apparently got away with this a few years before with a version of Jekyll & Hyde, now thought to be lost.)  Stoker’s widow however saw through this, successfully sued, and the producers were made to destroy all the prints and negatives.  Thankfully one or two nitrate prints slipped through the net and in good enough condition for the film to be restored for a cinema and Blu-ray re-release from Eureka‘s Masters of Cinema just in time for Halloween.

Estate clerk Hutter (Gustav Von Wagenheim) is given a task by his employer Knock (Alexander Granach) that will pay very well indeed.  Count Orlock (Max Schrek) wants to buy a house in the town and Hutter must bring all the paperwork to him.  So he has to leave his wife Ellen (Greta Schroder) on a long trip to the castle in the Carpathian Mountains.  Once there, he soon realises the Count’s true nature and he must get back to warn the town of the danger.  But Orlock is already on his way, ready to feast on Wisborg’s lifeblood, to cover his tracks, and bring the Plague with him.

Made over nine decades ago, Nosferatu has a lot you have to adjust to.  The acting is enthusiastic by a lot of the cast, Von Wagenheim in particular, as it’s very much of the stage style of the time.  Also, the early film cameras mean that it’s clear that the night scenes were filmed during the day (the film tinting helps with this a bit).  Finally, the pacing may seem a bit slow to a modern audience but for a film of the time it’s actually pretty brisk.

Most of these are nitpicks though, as this film still has a power that grabs and enthrals viewers nearly a century later.  For a start, the film has no fear in showing the supernatural.  When Hollywood made its Dracula in 1931, its count was a far more urbane charmer and we never saw him leave his coffin.  In this film, two of its biggest scares involve the vampire in his coffin and he is an utterly inhuman fiend.  The look of Orlock has rightly become iconic.  While Bela Lugosi became the trendsetter for vampires, Max Schrek’s uniquely rodent-like count is the go-to.

As a whole, the film has a unique creepy feel.  The film uses a lot of the style known as “Expressionism”, with a lot of odd camera angles and lighting effects to achieve the atmosphere.  Interestingly, the film uses a lot of location filming, which was quite a rarity for films of the era given the nature of camera equipment at the time.  As effective as the scenes shot in studio are, shooting in Wismar helps give the film the feeling of something unnatural invading the most idyllic of locations.  The ship coming into port, the processions of coffin bearers carrying away Orlock and the Plague’s victims will stay with you.

The film uses the story of Dracula in a very interesting manner.  It mainly uses the first part of the novel, dealing with Harker/Hutter’s journey to see Dracula/Orlock and the Count’s arrival in England/Wisborg.  One major point is that this film may be the best ever onscreen take on one of the novel’s most effective sequences; the doomed voyage of the Demeter, the ship carrying the vampire.  The crew falling victim to Orlock one by one, not knowing what’s happening until it’s far too late is the true stuff of nightmares.  (There has been talk of doing a film adaptation of just this section in recent years).  As for the way it deviates from the book, Mina/Ellen is given a far bigger role in the climax and the vampire’s defeat in a truly moving ending.  The addition of the plague element is particularly chilling when one realises this was made only two years after the flu epidemic that killed millions in the wake of the Great War.

The big question is how well does this look on the big screen?  Well, given the film’s history, and the severe limitations of the source material, it’s never going to end up looking pixel perfect.  The print still has a lot of issues with marks and scratches, and that can’t be helped, nor so the issues with the slightly erratic camera speed.  Despite this though, the new restoration looks pretty good.  Far more detail is clear, with a number of subtleties of set design and Schrek’s performance now visible again.  It’s matched by a good new performance of the original soundtrack by Hans Erdmann, which is a blessing after quite a few versions with not-great scores.  (The best version before this was written by Hammer films composer James Bernard).

Nosferatu has aged well; it’s not “scary” in the jump-scare filled way modern horror is. In fact, it’s an oddly comforting sort of fear flick today, maybe because there have been so many references to it over the years.  It’s influence is everywhere, from the original Salem’s Lot to even a surprise appearance on Spongebob Squarepants. It was also the basis for 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire, which poses the idea that Max Schrek was a real vampire.   Nothing is quite like experiencing the original though, and this Halloween is the perfect time to do that.  The release has been arranged through the BFI as part of their Gothic season, which will also be including a cinema re-release of Werner Herzog‘s worthy remake of this Nosferatu, the Vampyre.  Thank you BFI and Eureka for giving cinemagoers a chance to see once again the origins and true power of the vampire myth on screen.

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