Silent Shadow: F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) – Blu-ray review
Murnau figures out how to film nightmares, with help from his pointy-eared f(r)iend – but he doesn’t completely give in to the darkness.
F.W. Murnau, 1922)
The scariest thing about Nosferatu today is how close it came to being destroyed. Having failed in their efforts to secure the rights to Dracula, producer Albin Grau and director F.W. Murnau went ahead anyway, hoping that they’ll fool Bram Stoker’s estate by changing the character name to Count Orlok. Alas, no, and a court ordered all prints to be destroyed… except one got away and, much like the plague that is spread by Orlok, it multiplied and infected cinema, more or less creating horror cinema as we know it.
First things first: it isn’t Dracula. Yes, the central plot – bloke goes to Transylvania, comes back with blood-sucking, sunlight-dodging ghoul – is instantly familiar, but the level of invention that has gone into the adaptation makes it a different beast. Literally so: there’s no poncy, urbane aristocrat in a cape. Instead, Orlok is a bald, pointy-eared, bug-eyed freak and the first real monster to step out of the shadows on the screen. He is custom built to fit our nightmares, so much so that decades later an entire film (postmodern homage Shadow Of The Vampire) could be based on the notion that the actor playing Orlok, Max Schreck, was actually a vampire. And simply by doing away with the character of Van Helsing, Murnau removes a crucial totem of security.
The other thing to note is that – barring the chatty intertiled narration that recalls Stoker’s epistolary prose – Murnau does away with the literary in favour of the cinematic. That might seem an obvious thing to say, but there were plenty of films of the period that were happy to be performances of novels or plays; for all of its Expressionist innovations, 1919’s The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari is essentially theatrical in construction. In contrast, Murnau rebuilds the material visually, utilising outdoor locations in order to enhance the unreality of his worldview. This is a story of light and shadow, depicted using tints and filters and jerky camera tricks that are still remarkably effective ninety years on. It should look primitive; instead it looks uncanny, like the staccato, frozen moments in a nightmare when you can’t get away from the bogeyman.
And, of course, the film is silent, which makes Orlok all the creepier. Unlike Dracula, there’s no motive behind Orlok: his sole purpose seems to be to spread death and misery. His chosen method – bring along the rats to cause a plague – underlines the malignancy of the message, creating a metaphor that is adaptable to any context. The sexual dread that Stoker wrote about is still intact (although far more primal here) but Nosferatu is equally a study of societal paranoia and madness. Given the film’s provenance in Germany between the wars, Orlok could even be a harbinger of Nazism.
It isn’t perfect. Despite clipping along at a fair old pace – an hour and a half, in an era where Fritz Lang thought nothing of taking four hours to tell a story – there is an awful lot here that is redundant in narrative terms. Mostly, this is a study in atmosphere, and the film’s reputation rests largely on four sequences where Orlok takes centre stage – Hutter’s unhappy visit to his castle; his awakening on board ship; his arrival in town, lugging coffins around like the worst advert for death ever; and his silhouetted stalking of Hutter’s wife at the end.
Everything else is (sacrilege alert!) somewhat cosy and a little dull, but that is understandable. Nosferatu was a key staging post in cinema horror, before the genre’s rules were really established. As such, there’s a forgivable naïvete to Murnau’s simplistic dialectic between good and evil, until you consider that it’s a backwards step after the all-consuming insanity of The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari. Revealingly, it didn’t take Murnau long to realise the benefits of applying shades of grey to the characterisation – look at his classic film Sunrise, made just five years later, to see a greater psychological ambiguity. But it does tend to make Nosferatu’s lofty subtitle (A Symphony of Horrors) feel like misplaced hype. Orlok is a soloist; it would take a few years for the rest of the orchestra (Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman and – yes – the real Dracula) to join in.