Nosferatu Review

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by Simon Crust Oct 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

    Nosferatu Review
    When asked what landmark films define horror, most reply the “Universal Three”; Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), James Wales' Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and there is certainly an argument for them. These three films mark the point at which the horror genre as we know and love today became widely exploited. Universal capitalised on their 'monster' formula for many, many years, so much so that they eventually killed it. It took and enterprising young director called John Carpenter to revitalise the genre with his slasher sub-genre Halloween (1978), and then again with his remake The Thing (1981), but that's another story. However, the Universal Three while becoming worldwide institutions are, themselves, following a distinct horror pattern patented some ten years before Dracula was made. Their horror roots can be traced back to the earliest times of cinema to the German expressionist era of the 1920's and specifically W.F. Murnau's unauthorised version of that same film, its name, and the subject of tonight's feature, is Nosferatu (1922).

    Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, born in 1888, an ex-World War 1 fighter pilot, came to the directors chair late in his life. His first film Der Knabe in Blau, a horror short about a haunted painting and reincarnation was completed in 1919, but is now sadly lost. The expressionist movement, of which Murnau was a part, produced some incredible feats of cinema. Robert Wiene's Der Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) along with Carl Boese and Paul Wegener's Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem; How He Came into the World) of 1920 are considered seminal. The use of exaggerated camera angles, painted and angled sets and sharp lighting give these films a mystery in an attempt to provoke fear. It is, perhaps, Nosferatu, though, along with Albin Grau set and costume design and Murnau's sense of scale and camera movement plus the fact that most of the film was shot on location that raises the stakes and places it beyond mere expressionism. In using location juxtaposed with expressionism sets, for example in the Count's castle, Murnau manages to alter the audience perception, giving the film a dream like quality but grounding it in actuality. Murnau's continued use of camera trickery, different frame rates, stop motion, even printing negatives all add to the wild visual flare, while the most frames are given a fore, middle and background; a depth to the frame hither too unseen before. Wells' Citizen Kane (1941), often hailed as the first American film to show depth, just demonstrates how far Murnau was ahead of his time.

    Nosferatu was the first, and only, production of Murnau's own company Prana-film. The company was driven bust by overspending on the promotion of its first film, a fact that nearly cost the print itself. Nosferatu is a 'free adaptation' of Bram Stokers Dracula by Henrik Galeen; that means that Prana never secured the rights to make the film opting instead to change the names, locations and some plot points. However, no-one was fooled, least of all Stokers widow, left impoverished by her husband's death, she was totally reliant on revenue of his books. She took Prana to court of copyright infringement; however, because the company was already in the hands of receivership, the judge ordered that all prints of the film be destroyed instead. It is a blessing that the court order was not enforceable worldwide or we would have been robbed of a masterpiece of cinema. Her intervention, however, did complicate the various prints available though. When premiered in Berlin on 15 March 1922 the film was five reels (1967m) making a run time of 106 minutes at 16fps. There are however three other known prints, of which all the restoration work has been carried out to make a complete film, comparable to the original premier, and the video/DVD versions; the 'first French version' was 1900m when premiered on 22 November 1922, while the 'second French version' (Nov 1928) and 'Die zwölfte Stunde' a non-authorised re-adaptation with newly filmed inserts (May 1930) were considerable shorter. It is these latter two prints, or combination of them, that most have seen, it was not until 1995 that a fully restored print was available, not only replacing all missing footage, by crucially restoring the colour tints that Murnau used to distinguish night from day; as without them much of the film time line is rendered obsolete. You can no doubt, then, ascertain there are a substantial number of different versions out there. In fact there are some eighteen different DVD versions alone.

    My first brush with the film came in the form of Hugh Cornwell's 1979 solo album entitled Nosferatu, the cover of which is depicted in the second screen grab below. Intrigued by the story of the film, not least by its amazing survival, a close friend of mine managed to track down a video. This was a copy by Eureka, part of their silent classics, including the afore mentioned Cabinet of Dr Caligri and The Phantom Carriage (1921) as well as other early classics such as M (1931) and Blue Angel (1930). I watched and was quite amazed. The copy I bought for myself was the Redemption video, but I hated the music and asked if I could over dub the track with a copy of my friends. It was at this point when we discovered the different run times, the Redemption run at a paltry forty eight minutes compared to the Eureka's ninety. The search was therefore on. Come the advent of DVD, one of my very first purchases was the Eureka double disc special edition of Nosferatu, this is the exact same copy as their video, but shown in either sepia or plain black and white, there are however, an extensive array of extras. This print was made before the First French Version was found; it is slightly shorter and does not have the tints. The copy reviewed below is one of only three based on the definitive 1995 Bologna restoration, replacing all missing footage and coloured tints; one is the BFI print, another is the Films Sans Frontieres print, however, for my money the picture is best for the Kino production, and it is this we shall examine below.

    Act One opens in Bremen, our home town, there Hutter, a real estate agent, is married to Ellen; he is a big fellow, playful almost boy-ish in his attitude. Ellen is far more spiritual, she cares, even for the flowers that Hutter 'killed' as a present for her. She cradles them as if a child, leading some to believe that the marriage is unconsummated. Hutter is given the job of selling a property, the property opposite his own abode no less, to the mysterious Count Orlok, by Knock, his boss; it means he will have to travel far to the Count's house, in the land of ghosts. He readily accepts, even though Ellen is somewhat wary. These opening few scenes neatly condense the major plot details; Knock sits reading a paper covered with mysterious, un-readable symbols, a note from Orlok himself, they are in collusion. As Hutter, gleeful in his eagerness to pack, rudely ignores Ellens protests there is wonderful depth given to the frame. Hutter moves back and forth between a front and back bedroom, Ellen remains at the front left to hold the perspective, while far in the background, through an open window is the empty residence, the place that will become the cause of the horror that descends on the small town.

    Hutter arrives in a stage coach at an inn near Orlok's land in another wonderfully crafted scene. The coach enters the frame on the right hand side, moving diagonally towards left and away from the camera, serving to really pulling the audience into the picture. Once inside Hutter's impatience has him call to the innkeeper for his dinner, he wants to get to Orlok's castle before nightfall. On hearing that name the townsfolk freeze, dread clearly defined in their stares. The landlord confides in Hutter to stay the night, for a werewolf prowls outside, he agrees. We cut to a blue tinted forest, it is night and we are outside watching a 'werewolf', in reality a hyena, which menaces some horses causing them to run into the night. Just before bed, inside now, a yellow tint tells us of (artificial) candle light, Hutter pulls a book from his bedside; much like a bible can be found today, called Nosferatu, the Book of the Vampire, but tiredness overcoming him he falls to sleep. He wakes bathed in a pink tint; it is dawn, outside the townsfolk are busy herding the horses, after washomg he casts aside the Vampire Book. The following coach journey is long, it is nearly nightfall before it reaches the limits of Orlok's land, where it pulls short. “Offer as much as you want, we shall go no further” the coachman tells Hutter. Unperturbed, Hutter continues on foot, crossing the bridge, the bridge from this world to another, to the world of the Vampire. At full nightfall a strange coach comes to meet Hutter, sheathed in black with a mysterious rider, it moves with unnatural speed. This journey is fraught with danger, Murnau utilises different camera speeds to give speed to the carriage, and in one scene prints the negative, the coach still sheathed in black (in real life white sheeting to appear black in negative) to further enhance the weirdness and unnatural space this world is. Hutter leaves the coach, unscathed, but unnerved at the foot of the castle, a huge dark door invites him in, Orlok, centre stage, framed and surrounded by the darkness beckons. “You've kept me waiting” he says, turns and leads Hutter into the darkness, so ends Act One.

    Act Two opens into the castle interior, here we have some wonderful examples of the expressionist set design, chequered floors, stark lighting, grotesques on the walls. Hutter and Orlok are at the dining table, in taking in his surroundings Hutter unwittingly cuts himself, Orlok at once is on his feet to inspect the wound and backs Hutter into a corner, we fade to black. In the morning, Hutter awakes in the same corner, inspects 'mosquito' bites on his neck before writing a letter to Ellen telling her not to worry. As darkness falls once more, Hutter and Orlok are discussing the property when a picture of Ellen unwittingly falls to the table. Orlok admires her neck and signs immediately for the property. Once in his room, Hutter is in dreadful fright, hearing strange noises he opens his door to see Orlok once again framed there. Unable to block the door he is unable to resist Orlok once again. Back in Bremen, Ellen has a waking dream; she is terrified for Harker and tries to get to him but is stopped, shrieking his name as Nosferatu takes his victim once again.

    When dawn breaks, Hutter takes it upon himself to search the castle, he finds a coffin in a cellar. Breaking it open reveals the Count asleep, horror taking him Hutter returns to his room collapsing with exhaustion. Later that night Hutter wakes to see Orlok with his unnatural speed and strength load a coach with six coffins of earth, sealing himself in the final one. Realising Orlok's plan, Hutter shreds a sheet to escape the tower that imprisons him, all the while the raft-men take their dreadful cargo to the port, so ends Act Two.

    Act Three contains some of the most iconic imagery associated with Nosferau, particularly the scenes with Orlok on the ship. The entire act is a race between Hutter and Orlok to Bremen. Ellen has become withdrawn and has taken to spending much time on the beach looking out for Hutter. Meanwhile Harding (the Van Helsing character) is busy demonstrating various carnivorous plants to some of his students, mirrored by Orloks unholy nature. Knock, becoming increasing unstable with the immanent arrival of Orlok has been confined to an institute. It is there we first read about the plague that is infesting many people, a plague with an interesting mark, two puncture wounds on the neck. It is of the ships journey that is of the most interest. As one by one the sailors succumb to a mysterious disease and die only the first mate and captain are left. The first mate, incensed, goes to the hold and breaks into one of the coffins, rats pour forth, true plague bringers. The noise rouses Orlok, he literally rises from the grave, frightening the mate so much he flees the ship. Orlock then ventures topside, the spider amongst the rigging, mirrored by the spider in its web in Knock's cell. The captain cannot abandon his ship, he ties himself to the wheel, the ship is doomed, and when it ports so is the town, so ends Act Three. This whole act is a masterwork of editing, each part of the story flowing seamlessly into the next, the separate journeys, Ellen's plight, the carnivorous plants, simply wonderful stuff. The sense or dread and horror is no better than this in any film since, it truly is horrible and make you feel dirty; rats, disease, death, hand in hand with horror.

    Act Four opens with Ellen still subconsciously willing Hutter home. She can feel him near, likewise Knock is ecstatic that Orlok is close; as if twinned with a common goal both good and evil await their master. Later that night the ship and Hutter make it to Bremen, Orlok carries his coffin of rotten earth to his new house, Hutter goes to Ellen. Both made it safely to their destination as rats spew forth from the hold. Knock murders and escapes his confinement. A council searches the deserted ship and finds the captain lashed to the wheel, but nothing else. A read through of the log tells them of the horrors on board, a proclamation is passed, the city is plague infested, so ends Act Four. Once more Murnau tightens the screw, there are no rest bites; once Hutter and Ellen are reunited, a brief moment of happiness we cut to Orlok watching outside. The sense of dread is ever present, the multitude of rats, the proclamation to not move the dead, confining and constricting horror to a personal level.

    Act Five opens to the stench of death, doors are crossed to signify death inside, the plague is becoming worse. One thing that unites the townspeople is their fear of Knock, he is spotted outside and with a massive effort finally captured and imprisoned once again. Ellen, meanwhile is suffering, after being implored not to read the Book of the Vampire, she takes it upon herself to read it anyway and therein finds a possible solution to the horrors. Trying to speak to Hutter as she lies on her bad, he forbids it, blocking the window that overlooks to the building containing Orlok. Hutter ventures out to seek Harding's advice, at the same time Orlok, himself at a window, 'calls' to Ellen. After some deliberation and one more look at the Book, she opens her window; she invites the Vampire. This is Orlok's move, he leaves his 'castle' and makes his way to hers. Climbing the stars, sheathed in shadow, are once again iconic images, much copied by every horror movie, even now, ever since. Once in her bedroom, Orlok moves to her, she relaxes and offers herself, in perhaps the only 'erotic' part of the film. Too late does Orlok realise her trick, by keeping him there till sunrise, even the strangled cries of Knock cannot save him, within the morning light he vanishes and with him so does the plague and with the plague so does Ellen. Her parting gift to the man she loved is to sacrifice herself that he, and the town may endure. So ends Nosferatu. Though it's not so much an end as a beginning; a beginning of the horror genre.

    The full title of the film is Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens; a Symphony of Horrors; and just like the great symphonies the film plays with a pleasing melody still copied today. Murnau's skill at placement and attention to detail in every frame is reflected in the film as a whole. The detail level of the film, set design, costumes and lighting all amounts to much more than an ordinary production of the time. I've mentioned the use of colour tints to differentiate between night and day; these are essential elements to the whole. Grounding the dreamlike quality of the film in a restrictive timeline effectively lends a sense of realism to the proceedings, coupled with the location shooting, a contemporary audience must have been enthralled. Just as the tinting was an essential ingredient, so too are the intertitles. Traditionally used to move between scenes or tell dialogue, Murnau uses several different types to further the story as well as. The entire film is 'narrated' by an anonymous observer; these titles are used to further the story and exposit. Hutter reads the Book of the Vampire, a second intertitle used to further explain the nuances of the myth. There are the usual dialogue titles. And finally the 'newspaper' titles used to exposit the various horrors that descend upon the poor town. Rather than separate entities, Murnau skilfully used all these different types as part of the film, part of the symphony, part of the painting. This print unfortunately does not contain the original German cards, with the exception of the ships cargo manifest, all others are replaced by English translations.

    The casting of the film, too, has had a bearing on its success. All the major players were famous before this film, all seasoned and all put in excellent performances. Gustav von Wangenheim plays Hutter, when we first see him his performance is huge, somewhat over the top, with grand entrances and wild arm movements, however when he is subjected to the various horrors, he literally shrinks into himself, his performance becoming far more intimate, in total contrast thus emphasising the nature of his plight. Greta Schröder as Ellen by contrast starts off small, most of her early scenes are almost portraits, acting with her eyes. It is only when she has her waking dreams that her performance becomes more exaggerated, and for me less believable. Georg H. Schnell as Harding was a seasoned theatre actor, though he has little to do in the film, he is very subdued, a serious doctor and philanthropist he comes across as such. Knock, played by Alexander Granach puts in the most exaggerated performance of all. With his wild starring eyes, uncontrollable hair, black rotten teeth and manic movements he comes across as the very crazy character he is trying to portray. When he murders in the institution we can see him at his best, crazed and manic, ever the insect eater he is believable. And finally the Count himself, in stark contrast to every 'Dracula' since, Max Schreck created a monster. Never in any Dracula movie has the vampire been so utterly monstrous, much like the Wampyri of Brian Lumley's Necroscope series of books, Nosferatu is a fully blown creature, with pointed features, claws and furtive, jerky movements; Schreck portrays the Count more rodent and spider like than a suave erotic killer that Dracula has become synonymous with. It is this performance that really lends the horror to the story, if this hideous creature can seduce Ellen at the end of the film then surely he can come for anyone. So realistic was his performance and that the fact that Schreck translates from German to 'fright' had much of the public believing that he was in fact a real vampire. A story so fantastic that E. Elias Merhige remade it as a film in itself, Shadow of the Vampire, in 2000, it was, of course, not true.

    So, there we have it, Nosferatu; A Symphony of Horrors, not only one of the greatest horror films of all time, but also one of the greatest films full stop. In crafting a tight masterwork of a film, Murnau has set the standard for which all horror films are measured; it is a testament to its greatness that even now directors draw inspiration from the lighting and the shadow (Coppola's Dracula?) even if they don't acknowledge it. If you have only seen a pre-1995 restoration I urge you to seek out the fuller version. I thought my Eureka copy could not be beaten, how wrong I was, in restoring the tints and all footage, the film has taken me to new depths; has taken me to new heights.

    Nosferatu is horror.

    Nosferatu is horror.

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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