Nosferatu (also referred to as Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror), directed by the legendary F.W. Murnau, begins with a young real estate apprentice named Hutter. I love him because it is clear within the first 30 seconds he is on screen that Hutter is absolutely insane. Early on in the film he must leave his wife (which I assume is played by an actress but, like most women in German silent films, looks like a man in drag) because of business. He works for a man named Knock (just imagine Ebenezer Scrooge and you have imagined Knock). Knock sends Hutter to the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania because a Count named Orlock wishes to buy property in their town. If this sounds familiar it is because Nosferatu is simply the story of Dracula with the names and one of the locations changed (instead of coming to England, the Count wishes to come to Germany). Hutter is Jonathan Harker, Professor Bulwer is Van Helsing, and Count Orlock is Dracula.
They needed to change these details because although Dracula’s author, Bram Stoker, was deceased, his widow was still alive and would not give them the rights to film a movie version of the novel. I suppose that they could have begun the film with the following disclaimer: “Any similarities between this and the only other vampire story are purely coincidental,” but that would have seemed rude since it was such an obvious lie. Florence Stoker sued the filmmakers and won. Courts ordered that the movie be destroyed but some copies of it were kept and still exist today.
Another of the great German Expressionist movies (although this film is not as overt in its expressionism as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Nosferatu (a reference to “vampire,” a word the filmmaker avoided) uses shadows better than almost any other movie. Max Schreck’s performance as the vampiric count is highlighted by sharp contrasts of light and shadow, which make him seem even more menacing to the viewer and to his victims. Visual effects considered primitive today must have had a powerful impact on audiences in 1922. The first third of the movie, which takes place in the Carpathians, may have even been shot on location (this is one of those things that I have heard, but cannot verify due to my “no research” policy on the blog), making the beginning of the film even more intense.
Unlike the suave version of Dracula introduced by Bela Lugosi (and continued by Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman), Count Orlock is repulsive. Visually evocative of a giant rat, he is the vampire as vermin. This vampire will not seduce his victims. In this interpretation a vampire is a filthy parasite living on the blood of others. It is different from most versions you may have seen and it is incredibly creepy.
Some of the performances may seem too melodramatic to modern viewers (particularly Hutter’s) and the film certainly would not be considered scary by modern standards. It is a compliment to Schreck’s performance as Orlock that the movie is still creepy and to Murnau’s direction that it is still visually and atmospherically interesting.
If you do decide to watch this film, be careful which copy you see. This seems like a good time to bring up a tricky issue with silent films. A ridiculous number of silent films do not survive to the current day. There were a couple of reasons for this. Movies were filmed on a nitrate-based film stock and nitrate (1) shrinks over time (this is why old movies sometimes seem jumpy, because the images have shrunk slightly in places) and (2) is highly flammable. Movies were also edited differently in various places around the world (depending on what local censors felt would be suitable for their audience) and movies were often either used until they wore out or were thrown away when theaters were done with them. Some versions of silent films are just pieced together from the scraps that were gathered. Depending on the print that you watch of a silent film, you may not be seeing the full picture. You may get a version that is an hour long and rent another copy of the same movie and get one that is an hour and a half.
Why this was a hard decision (Other movies from 1922 that are worth seeing):
Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler is the earliest of Fritz Lang’s movies that is readily available on today. Lang made some decent movies after moving to the U.S. in 1934, but his German films, from Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler to 1933’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse are all solid films and are all worth seeing (and I’m sure at least one of them will come up in future posts). Foolish Wives, written, directed by and starring Erich Von Stroheim, is a masterpiece of silent drama, with complex characters and wonderful direction. Robin Hood continued Douglas Fairbanks’s run of wonderful action/swashbuckling pictures and was, as far as I know, the first time Robin Hood appeared on film. Just like every Fairbanks movie, it is characterized by fun, excitement, and athletic stunts.
Did you know? (1922 Trivial Knowledge):
“Your wife has a lovely neck”-Count Orlock to Hutter
Which DVD version did I watch?
The Kino on Video DVD, not the Ultimate Edition, the regular edition.