Re-released for Halloween this year, F.W Murnau’s Nosferatu is a beautiful and chilling piece of silent cinema that set the benchmark of the Gothic cinematic tradition.
“It will cost you sweat and tears. And perhaps…a little blood.”
As classics go, it does not get much more classic than this. Or much better. Originally released in 1922, Nosferatu was, despite many differences, an unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel. Disguising the film under original names and details, this Dracula interpretation tells of Count Orlok, who is negotiating a move to Bremen by way of realtor Thomas Hutter (Graff Orlok). But like the plagued-diseased rats of history, the Nosferatu is, naturally, a harbinger of death: bringing with him a great darkness as he obsessively pursues the neck of Hutter’s wife.
Masterfully directed, timeless images of the nocturnal blood sucker gravitating through the shadows – as one with the dark – will send chills down your spine, uninvintingly locking themselves away in the darker side of your memory. Max Schreck‘s Count Orlok grotesques all with his rodent-like physical demeanor, nail-slim teeth and supernaturally extending claws; the epitome being the rightly iconic shot of the shadow ascending the stairs. There is a sense of mystical elegance to the shot; not just because of it’s iconic status and cultural significance – it is pure Gothic horror, unnerving through its visual majesty. This is a vampire you won’t be accustomed to seeing if you have been a regular viewer of the the shirtless escapades present in the Twilight films or the vampire-fu of Blade, Underworld and Blood: The Last Vampire. Nosferatu is not exactly heart-warming, buff or even sexy. You would not bet your money on him for a brawl either. He frightens through his unnatural, seemingly ancient, demeanor – he is a pale stick insect which has just crawled out of a unsavory hole. Edward Cullen and family like transparent architecture, with their expensive and modern real estate, but Nosferatu prefers his abode to be a haunting, baroque Bavarian castle. He is old school that way.
There is a great charm in seeing one camera techniques pioneered. Film was still a relatively new art-form and Nosferatu pushed that art forward through its usage and merging of light, subject and camera to create truly oppressive atmosphere. Not even Francis Ford Coppola, or the great Werner Herzog, could replicate the same sense of mysticism with their adaptations. It just shows how great director F.W Murnau‘s grasp of the visuals are; his impressionist images affecting audiences for nearly 100 years. Coppola’s and Herzog’s interpretations of the Dracula myth are both great films in their own right, and there are many more Dracula stories we can watch with certain satisfaction, but none can do what this original vampire movie did: scare us to death. All the fabulous cinematic innovations that occupy our screens today do nothing in comparison to one inspired performance in 1922 from Max Shreck, playing the physical embodiment of all things foul. For this reason, he takes his rightful place as one of the greatest movie monsters to grace celluloid.
Stoker’s heirs sued over Nosferatu and the devastating ruling ordered all copies to be destroyed. But, like the movies iconic monster, it seems the film is immortal. One print survived. Because of that one print, we all have the privilege of indulging ourselves in this classical Gothic pleasure. Which many of us, to our disgrace, have not done. Unless you are a film student, forced to digest and evaluate the importance of a silent movie classic, I doubt you have been casually watching Nosferatu when Halloween comes around. Time has left it behind, but thanks to the Masters of Cinema re-release and the film’s triumphant return to cinema’s this Halloween with the BFI’s Gothic season, it can take it’s place on everyone’s collection shelf as, not only a historically significant piece of filmmaking, but a great, casual viewing experience that everyone can and should appreciate as a Gothic masterpiece.
Rating = A*