NOSFERATU, EINE SYMPHONIE DES GRAUENS
(director/editor: F.W. Murnau; screenwriters: Henrik Galeen/from the novel “Dracula” Bram Stoker; cinematographers: Fritz Arno Wagner/Günther Krampf; music: James Bernard; cast: Max Schreck (Graf Orlok), Alexander Granach (Knock), Gustav von Wagenheim (Jonathan Harker), Greta Schroder (Mina Harker), G.H. Schnell (Harding), Ruth Landshoff (Lucy), John Gottowt (Professor van Helsing), Gustav Botz (Dr.Sievers), Max Nemetz (Captain Demeter); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Albin Grau/Wayne Keeley/Enrico Dieckmann; Parana/Film Arts Guild; 1922-silent-Germany)
“This classic horror film is like a fine wine that only gets better with age…”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
One of Germany’s master silent directors, F.W. Murnau (“Sunrise“/”The Last Laugh”), directs this most lyrically made of all the horror pics, “Nosferatu (plague-carrier).” It is the first and most straightforward vampire film ever made and is based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel about Dracula. Stoker’s novel received modest success during his lifetime, but he died in an almost impoverished condition unaware of the great legendary worldly success his novel would have after his death. When Murnau decided to use his novel, Stoker’s widow sued not allowing the film to be made without her permission. Murnau got around the suit by changing the names of the main characters, but the suit from the Stoker estate resulted in the English court ordering the original film destroyed–but apparently the order wasn’t enforceable in Germany as a ten minute shorter version of the original 90 minute film surfaced some decades after the producers were forced to divest themselves from the hot property. The most noticeable factual part changed from the book was the sea voyage, which was not included in the book. Also, the part of Professor van Helsing was downplayed in the film. Stoker had based his own version of Dracula on an historical figure named Vlad the Impaler, who was certainly not a vampire but considered a ruthless but heroic protector of his tribal territory by the Roumanian people.
This classic horror film is like a fine wine that only gets better with age; especially, after viewing how the Dracula movies became clichés and the vampire was made into a campy and romantic figure in later films. This classic horror film stayed clear of making Dracula a sexy figure and instead concentrated on his lust for blood (perhaps a metaphor for Germany’s lust for war). It is excellently scripted by Henrik Galeen, excitingly photographed in black and white and in various mood shades of light and dark by Fritz Arno Wagner, and the eerie, mostly exterior, sets that were so perfectly suited for the macabre doings were designed by a spiritualist, Albin Grau. But what lifts the film into the one-of-a-kind rare masterpiece — is the odd and striking performance by the mysterious Max Schreck as the vampire, someone who has death written all over him. Schreck presents himself as a spine-tingling vampire with his grotesque skeleton-like features, his thin wraith-like appearance capped by a bald and pointy-eared head of uncertain age, his fingers seemingly curling at all times in a frightful way, and his evil intentions lurking in anticipation behind his black lips and ratlike mouth as he glares at the flesh of his next victim’s neck.
The film is made without the benefit of modern computer techniques and special effects; yet, Schreck becomes an unforgettable figure in movie lore, while the other cast members suffered in time for their hammy over expressive and hysterical performances which were really a product of the silent films.
The film opens as Bremen real estate agent Knock (Granach), in a strange communication with his master Count Orlok (Schreck), sends his employee Jonathan Harker (von Wagenheim) to the mysterious remote Transylvania to close a deal on an abandoned Bremen house the wealthy Count wishes to purchase. The Count’s current residence in the Carpathian Mountains is where the peasants truly believe in the legends of vampires, and live in fear. Jonathan is a young and ambitious career-minded man, who assures his loving wife Mina (Schroder) that no harm will come to him. Only when near the Count’s castle do the locals show their terror of vampires, as all the signs point to the young man being in great danger if he goes on to the Count’s castle. Jonathan remains adamant about doing his job and collecting his big commission, and laughs off the locals’ beliefs as being superstitious even after coming across a Book of Vampires and learning what evil powers he might be up against.
At the castle Jonathan accidentally slices his thumb causing it to bleed and has to ward off the eerie advances of Orlok (he notices two unusual fang marks on his neck), but he writes home only of strange dreams he is having and assures Mina that he’s well. But she is affected by the strong sex drive she feels emanating from the vampire who loses interest in Jonathan after seeing a photo of her and concentrates on her, and she begins having the same strange dreams as her husband and becomes increasingly worried that he’s in great danger and tries to warn him of this when she goes into a sleepwalking trance. He flees back to Bremen by coach after closing the real estate deal and discovering for sure that his host is a vampire who drinks blood and sleeps by day in a coffin.
Warning: spoiler in next paragraph.
The Count decides to come to Bremen and claim his property just purchased by being a stowaway on a ship leaving from Varma. He also aims to go after the attractive Mina, and he brings along his coffin and the other vampire coffins because they must sleep in the same hallow ground where they were buried (with the same earth from those who died of the Black Death). But rats come out of the coffins and all the mortals on the ship die from the plague. It is now up to the pure-hearted Mina to save the day as she battles in her dream with the tragic figure of the vampire who can’t help himself lusting after blood.
The film about the un-dead was more haunting than being out-and-out scary. Its strange power endures and can’t be duplicated because of its magical qualities. The vampire is a psychological threat to a rational bourgeois society (the society of post WW1 Germany) and exhibits undertones of sexual aggression by the real threat he poses to the relationship of the Harker couple, issues that undermine the security of any established order. The creepiness is more in the imagination than overt, something lesser filmmakers just can’t match when they go the horror film route.
REVIEWED ON 11/7/2002 GRADE: A +