Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)

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*. This was a movie you almost never saw. Because it was an unauthorized film version of Dracula, Bram Stoker’s widow took the producers to court and got an order that the negative and all prints of the film be destroyed. Luckily that didn’t happen, but it’s a case to keep in mind in any discussion of the pros and cons of a rigid enforcement of intellectual property rights.
*. I like this movie more and more every time I see it. Which is the opposite reaction I have to Browning’s Dracula.

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*. A note on names. Dracula’s name is Count Orlok here, and the term “Nosferatu” is usually translated as just generically meaning “vampire.” But that doesn’t fit with the title cards, where Nosferatu is clearly used as the Count’s name, and the word “vampire” is used separately.

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*. You can lose count of all the iconic shots in this film, almost all of them being appearances of Orlok (or his shadow). What makes this even more impressive is the fact that Orlok is only on screen less than ten minutes. That’s the same sort of effect Hannibal Lecter has in Silence of the Lambs, where he appears for just under sixteen minutes. Villains don’t need a big part to make a big impact. They just have to establish an aura or presence.
*. It’s the Hamlet of horror films, and Herzog would lovingly quote all of its best lines/shots in his 1979 version, sometimes unconsciously.

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*. Murnau is so good on location and out of doors (how did he get such steady shots of the ship at sea?) that it makes me wonder why he insisted on shooting all of the unlimited-budget Faust in a studio. As much as I love Faust, I think of what might have been.
*. Andy Klein: “As Orlok, Schreck is fitted with the same huge hooked nose and grasping talons that have traditionally been associated with Shylock and Fagin. He lives off the blood of others, much as Jews were believed to drink the blood of Christian babies. He and Knock communicate in a strange secret language that is impossible for the rest of the citizenry to understand. Worse yet, Knock and Orlok both seem to be part of some secret, monied cabal, whose purpose is to pollute, corrupt, and control the sleepy, unsuspecting populace. Orlok’s arrival is accompanied by the plague; and he himself is associated visually with vermin. It would not take much — no more than the rewriting of a few title cards, substituting the word ‘Jew’ for ‘vampire’ — to turn Nosferatu into a perfect Nazi-era propaganda drama.”
*. Fair comment? Mostly, though I think Klein overstates the case a bit. It’s not clear that no one but Knock understands the coded language Orlok uses. It might just be meant to represent some weird regional dialect. Also, while undoubtedly rich, I don’t see Orlok portrayed as a miser or even as being all that that interested in money. Why would he be? The same goes for Knock. And finally, there is no attempt to give the film an overtly religious dimension by portraying the citizenry as a community of upright churchgoers threatened by a diabolical anti-Christian outsider.
*. No, jumping into bed and pulling the covers over your head really isn’t the most manly response to seeing a vampire at your door, is it? Poor Hutter. And his wife is still a virgin?

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*. I wonder if it was assumed that audiences wouldn’t be able to recognize a hyena, and thus think it might be a werewolf.
*. There’s a lot of effort put into making Orlok seem a natural predator, like a fly-eating plant or a spider. David Thomson: “[Murnau] sees Orlok as an emanation of the natural world — he is a mist and a vapor in mountains where cloud formations are often strange.”

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*. At the same time, as mentioned above, there is no mention of any religious connection made to vampirism at all. We never hear of Orlok being afraid of crosses or holy water, and the only way to kill him is through some pagan rite involving the sacrifice of a maiden. The business about killing a vampire by exposing him to daylight was a total invention of Murnau’s, by the way.
*. Count Orlok clearly isn’t a sexy vampire in the mould of a Christopher Lee or Frank Langella, but it’s interesting how, before his arrival in her bedroom, Ellen does some rather risque groping of her own breast. Then, when Orlok does show up, the shadow of his hand moves up her body and settles on the same breast. I wonder if Murnau had a thing for this. In Faust, Mephisotopheles really goes to town groping Martha’s chest as well.

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*. Did Murnau think there was something funny in the scenes of Orlok lugging his coffin around Wisborg, or is the humour there unintentional? It seems almost Chaplinesque. You can’t help thinking that if someone were standing next to him he would be sure to knock them down if he turned around too quickly.
*. Does the Van Helsing character in this version of the story (dubbed Professor Bulwer) do anything? Anything at all?

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