Blog Directory CineVerse: 100 reasons to watch Nosferatu

100 reasons to watch Nosferatu

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror turned 100 years old earlier this year. Our CineVerse group got around to celebrating earlier this month, in time for the Halloween season. Curious why this vampire film stands pointy ears above other movies featuring undead fiends? The reasons are as plentiful as this monster’s blood-drained victims, as detailed below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here; to listen to the current episode of Cineversary commemorating Nosferatu’s 100th anniversary, click here).

How has Nosferatu stood the test of time? Why does this movie still matter a century later, and why is it worth celebrating?

  • It’s likely the greatest and most important work in the vampire film subgenre. Every horror filmmaker and fan is indebted to Nosferatu for helping to establish many horror movie rules, tropes, and visual styles that persist to this day. This is a picture that may no longer frighten but continues to unnerve as an exemplary form of eerie entertainment. The masterful craftsmanship on display here has helped Nosferatu remain accessible and effective to new generations.
  • Nosferatu is further worth celebrating because it can be considered one of the finest in several categories: horror, silent films, and German/foreign movies.
  • It’s deserving of serious respect because it helped advance film grammar and combine early special effects in a distinctive and experimental approach.
    • Nosferatu is one of the first and most effective silent features to use intercutting of parallel action, crosscutting montages, and POV shots to better tell its story.
    • Its chiaroscuro lighting design emphasizing a high contrast between lights and darks would influence countless horror and noir films that came thereafter.
    • There’s a greater fluidity of visual storytelling thanks in large part to the adventurous placing of the camera. Murnau said, “The camera is the director’s pencil. It should have the greatest possible mobility in order to record the most fleeting harmony of atmosphere.” Writer Joanne Laurier wrote: “The resulting flowing and non-static camera work establish the differing relationships to the space occupied by each character and his or her own particular interaction with the vampire’s use of ‘the oppression of the night.’ French filmmaker Eric Rohmer once commented that perhaps ‘no other filmmaker has used space more rigorously or inventively than Murnau.’”
    • This film is also distinctive in the way it combines cutting-edge special effects for its time: double exposures and dissolves that make the vampire appear and reappear, sometimes as a transparent figure; doors and portals that mysteriously open; color-tinted shots in yellow to signify daytime versus blue for nighttime scenes; stop motion photography, used memorably in the sequence where Orlok’s coffin lid mysteriously levitates to rest atop the coffin; mirror shots employed to show Hutter’s bite marks; camera undercranking to speed up the shot of Orlok loading the coach with coffins; and using color negative photography to suggest the paranormal nature of Orlok’s coach riding through the forest.
    • According to French film critic Jean-AndrĂ© Fieschi, “Nosferatu marks the advent of a total cinema in which the plastic, rhythmic and narrative elements are no longer graduated in importance, but in strict interdependence upon each other. With this film, the modern cinema was born, and all developments to come, notably those of the Soviet filmmakers, became possible.”
  • It still matters because it’s a benchmark example of German expressionism—a movement that originated in German cinema after WWI in which films externalize emotions and rely on an exaggerated acting style and exaggerated designs, sets, and lighting to create mood and tell a story.
  • Yet, despite being an expressionistic work imbued with symbolism and metaphor, the misc en scene of Nosferatu looks relatively realistic 100 years later, thanks to it being filmed on location in key and authentic settings throughout Europe instead of on studio-fabricated sets.
  • Additionally, it’s not as creaky and archaic as its age would suggest. Murnau keeps our interest alert and satisfies in the storytelling department by implementing proven cinematic techniques, like frequent parallel editing and varying camera placement to produce interesting shots and angles, and keeping the plot relatively simple.
  • It has transcended time, as well, because it feels surprisingly modern in its terrifying depiction of the spread of disease and infection, which has reoccupied the world, especially over the last three years.
  • Lastly, it still matters because it feels like a photographic document of a vintage era, as if it’s a dead sea scroll of a cinematic artifact that belongs in a museum, worthy of reverence and rediscovery for new clues and insights. It’s perhaps more haunting and odd because it’s so far removed from our modern sensibilities. It being a black-and-white, foreign, and silent feature only adds to its weird veneer, in my opinion.
    • Per Roger Ebert: “Nosferatu” is more effective for being silent. It is commonplace to say that silent films are more “dreamlike,” but what does that mean? In “Nosferatu,” it means that the characters are confronted with alarming images and denied the freedom to talk them away. There is no repartee in nightmares. Human speech dissipates the shadows and makes a room seem normal. Those things that live only at night do not need to talk, for their victims are asleep, waiting.”

How are this version of Dracula and its head vampire different from subsequent cinematic interpretations of Bram Stoker’s famous novel?

  • The filmmakers significantly condense Bram Stoker’s story and many of its characters. For example, Ellen essentially serves as three characters in one: Mina, Lucy, and Van Helsing. Murnau and company also dispense with the third act of the novel and alter the ending. In Stoker’s novel, the heroes pursue the on-the-run vampire to his doom at the end of a wooden stake. Here, Ellen must sacrifice herself to kill the vampire.
  • The film Nosferatu shows no religious icons like a crucifix or holy water, nor does it have any religious subtexts or spiritual stakes—no pun intended.
  • Orlok doesn’t turn his victims into vampires; his bite leads to rapidly spreading disease and death.
  • This vampire is physically repulsive, not a handsome aristocrat like Count Dracula who can disguise his monstrousness. He appears as a thin, pale, rodent creature with pointed rat-like incisors, and he represents disease and pestilence. Instead of changing into a bat or wolf, Orlok can disappear and rematerialize at will and use his shadow as he would his body.
  • Some argue that Orlok’s look and design are anti-semitic, exhibiting caricaturistic physical traits of a Jewish person; therefore, the film would seem to portend the rise of Naziism and widespread antisemitism in Germany that would occur in later years. Others contend that this was not the filmmakers’ intent and that there is no evidence that Murnau and co-producer Albin Grau were discriminatory against the Jews.
  • It’s also interesting that this film has an unknown and unshown first-person narrator. By contrast, Dracula is an epistolary novel told by several different narrators.

How was Nosferatu groundbreaking in any way as a horror film, and what impact did it have on the genre that inspired subsequent films?

  • It introduced new concepts to horror cinema: Sunlight is deadly to vampires; sexually promiscuous, devirginized characters must pay with their lives; and a smart and brave female character with agency who must vanquish the monster herself, serving as an early precursor to the final girl figure of the 1970s through 1990s. Ellen is admirable as an intuitive, clever, and courageous woman willing to sacrifice herself for the good of the village, certainly a rarity for an early 20th-century horror film.
    • DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson wrote: “Ellen makes herself into a suicidal trap for the lustful Orlok, the seductive kind that only a "woman with forbidden knowledge" would understand. As in a fairy tale gender roles are harshly delineated, but Ellen is something of a liberated force. Hers is the allure that brings Orlok out of his lair, and hers is the sensuality that destroys him.”
  • The German Expressionism and gothic elements on display here helped set the mold for classic horror cinema. Nosferatu’s creepy cliffside castle, its supernatural shadows, peculiar character movements, and high contrast lighting scheme were imitated in many fright films to follow.

Can you cite any movies or filmmakers you believe were influenced by this work?

  • You could trace an easy throughline from Nosferatu to any subsequent vampire film, especially the 1931 Dracula.
  • Werner Herzog remade this film in 1979, and there has been talk of another remake by Robert Eggers.
  • The guise of Orlok was echoed in the Salem’s Lot 1979 TV miniseries, the comedy What We Do in the Shadows, and the films Vamp (1986) and Black Water Vampire (2014).
  • The fantastic Shadow of the Vampire reenacts the making of Nosferatu and imagines thespian Max Shreck as the ultimate method actor.
  • Orlok’s unsettling walk and body language, particularly his slow stalking, can be seen in the Frankenstein monster and Michael Myers from the Halloween series.
  • Alien (1979) seems to be influenced by the vampire’s systematic dispatching of the crew aboard the schooner Empusa.
  • Recall how one of the opening title cards reads: “Beware you never say it” (meaning the word “Nosferatu”). Maybe it’s a stretch, but this forbidden word trope is possibly picked up in Candyman and Beetlejuice.

What special qualities do director F.W. Murnau and actor Max Schreck bring to this picture?

  • Many shots are tilted or composed from upper or lower angles, which visually creates distortion and unease. Consider the low-angle shots of Orlok, which make him appear more imposing and dominating.
  • Interestingly, Orlok is centered within the frame in many shots, and the vampire is never shown physically entering or exiting any room uncut; Murnau often uses transitional cuts to him get him from point A to B.
  • The film is replete with fantastic shots, each of which could serve as still-frame masterpieces of visual horror unto themselves, including the reveal of Orlok behind Hutter’s bedroom door; Orlok rising stiffly from his coffin in the hold of the Empusa; the vampire creeping across the hull of the ship; Ellen looking forlornly at the waves amidst a seaside cemetery; and the elongated, twisting shadow of Orlok approaching Ellen’s door.

What’s the moral of the story here? What themes or messages are woven into Nosferatu?

  • Dichotomy and duality.
    • According to reviewer James Berardinelli: “By using Hutter and Orlock to symbolically represent two halves of a complete individual, Murnau allows the film to explore the Jekyll & Hyde split between man's civilized and bestial natures. Hutter is the childlike innocent who cares for his wife in a platonic manner and reacts to circumstances with wide-eyed amazement. Orlock, on the other hand, is animalistic. His advances towards Ellen are fueled entirely by his base needs, and are grounded in sexuality in a way that the metaphorically emasculated Hutter could not comprehend. In that way, Hutter and Orlock complement each other. Ellen gains from each of them what she cannot have from the other.”
    • Likewise, Ellen seems to be a bifurcated figure. She’s a chaste, dependable wife to Hutter but also a lusty, willing mate to Orlok—although she chooses to act pruriently in a sacrificial manner.
  • Fear of the unknown, the outsider, and disease. Orlok is a metaphor for a destructive pathogen that can quickly spread and wreak terrible suffering and death, much as the Spanish flu of 1918 did four years before this film was released.
  • The predatory side of nature. The film continually references, names, or shows organisms that feast on blood, ensnare pray, or are uncanny and abhorrent by design like a Venus flytrap plant, mosquitos, rats, microscopic hydra polyps, spiders, and “the death bird” mentioned by the narrator. Like these creatures, Orlok is animalistic and bloodthirsty by nature, representing a threat to the human beings that have risen precariously to the top of the animal kingdom.
  • As with any vampire story, Nosferatu may also be a cautionary tale about the dangers of carnality, sexually transmitted diseases, and aberrant sexuality outside the confines of procreation and marital relations.
  • The value of intuition. There’s a telepathic communication at work between Orlok and Ellen that triggers her fears for Hutter, incites her sleepwalking, and ultimately prompts her to entrap the vampire. The lesson here is to trust your gut instincts, take action, and not ignore the red warning flags when you suspect a threat.

What is Nosferatu’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Perhaps the greatest gift Nosferatu gives us is Count Orlok himself: quite possibly the most disturbing and unabashedly horrific vampire in movie history. The design and personification of this undead monarch of the macabre remain unparalleled. 
    • This creature, as embodied so adroitly by actor Max Schreck, amalgamates many characteristics that make our flesh crawl. The dagger-like incisors, impossibly long and sharp claws, hunched posture, and beady eyes instantly connote him with a rat; there’s an insectoid quality to his stillness and lanky physique, further evidenced by the fact that we never see him change his wide-eyed expression or close his eyes; and he’s got the rigid frame and protracted movements of zombie, but the disquieting way he sometimes glides along evenly suggests an automaton.
    • There’s nothing seductive, resplendent, or cunningly camouflaging about this bloodsucker. He’s disease and death incarnate without any pretense of humanization, and we can’t take our eyes off him for a second—so captivating is his presence. That’s a testament to Shreck’s complete commitment to this role, of course, but the full realization of this character on screen is also a triumvirate triumph of makeup, costume design, and lighting.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “Max Schreck, who plays the vampire, avoids most of the theatrical touches that would distract from all the later performances, from Bela Lugosi to Christopher Lee to Frank Langella to Gary Oldman. The vampire should come across not like a flamboyant actor but like a man suffering from a dread curse. Schreck plays the count more like an animal than a human being.”

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