Louise does Nosferatu

nosferatu“Is this your wife? What a lovely throat.”

The Scoop: 1922 PG, directed by F. W. Murnau and starring Max Schreck, Greta Schröder and Gustav von Wangenheim.

Tagline: A symphony of horror.

Summary Capsule: Short German adaptation of ‘Dracula’ with two famous scenes, two scary moments, three changes from the source material and one headache from all that flickering sepia… argh!

louisebanner2Louise’s Rating: 2 out of 5 goth fantasies.

Louise’s Review: In my effort to be taken seriously as a film critic – ahem! – and to be an all-round interesting and cultured person, I sometimes watch a film because I think I should, not because I have much anticipation of enjoying it. Such a piece of work is Nosferatu, the original, the famous.

It’s very famous as an example of German Expressionism (I don’t know what that is) and a fossil of a horror movie. It’s frequently referenced in TV clip countdown shows (like 100 Greatest Scary Moments, or 50 Greatest White Dresses, or Ultimate Top Ten Masterworks of German Expressionism, which I, uh, like to watch when I’m babysitting) meaning that certain scenes and stills are very familiar to me. However, although I have seen that shot of the vampire going up the stairs with his arms all akimbo a hundred times, I’ve never seen any more of it. I don’t blame myself for this. In fact, I don’t think I’m the only one. Yeah, I admit that I usually drift around the musical-romance-adventure corner of MovieLand, swinging between 1980 and 1995, but I don’t believe that Nosferatu is actually watched much in its entireity. I know people who adore Shadow of the Vampire, but won’t actually watch Nosferatu because they think it’s boring. Not movie critic people, normal people.

I don’t think it’s boring. But I’m glad it’s short. Because it gives you a headache after a while.

I’m going to be honest. I don’t like the idea that I’m a chronological snob. I don’t like that I might not like an old film just because it’s old and ‘old films are slow and unnaturally acted and don’t have as much pretty to look at.’ However, I can really struggle with pre-1970 films if they don’t have a song and dance every ten minutes. I think “Come on! Something happen! Someone please not be wearing really obvious make up or underwear! Something explode! How on earth did this win Oscars back in the day? Was their standard really that low? etc. etc.” I struggled to stay focussed watching Nosferatu. The flickering, the non-stop organ music, the fact that two word dialogue cards stay on the screen for fifteen seconds, all of it is enough to drive a viewer up the wall… or at least to be doing something else at the same time.

But, you might be able to watch a version with different music, right, so let’s have some facts on the movie. Nosferatu is an adaptation of the Dracula story.

Oh, by the way, because the filmmakers could not get the copyright to the book, they originally tried to disguise their ripping-off by changing the characters’ names. In many versions, these names have been changed back. So, be warned that my cut is not necessarily your cut. With that out of the way, then…

Hutter is a young office worker who jumps around manically and mugs like Batman’s Joker. His sinister boss sends him to Transylvania to organize buying a house for a mysterious Count Orlock. Hutter’s wife Nina does not want him to go. He will not be stopped and heads off anyway. At a coaching inn, the inhabitants warn him about visiting Orlock and give him a book about vampires. He chooses not to read this. Silly boy. When he reaches Orlock’s castle, the count prepares a meal for him, after which he falls unconscious. In the morning he has bites on his neck which he presume come from mosquitos or spiders. Silly boy. Exploring the castle, he discovers Orlock lying in a coffin. Later, as he cowers in his bedroom, his door opens by itself and Orlock slowly, oh so slowly, enters. Fade to black. Orlock then takes ship for Hutter’s hometown of Bremen, and once Hutter is out of hospital, he follows him. Orlock’s arrival and subsequent (slow) rampaging around the town gives rise to a general panic and everyone is confined to their houses. Nina, who has been sleepwalking and dreaming and being an all-round gothic heroine, finally picks up that book about vampires and reads that a pure-hearted woman can end Orlock’s curse if she offers herself to him willingly. Clever girl. She does so. She grabs his attention for the whole night, and so he forgets to go back to his coffin, and when dawn breaks, poof! He dies! Curse lifted. Nina then dies. I think. Maybe she doesn’t. Not sure. It’s not clear. That’s the only part in the film when a dialogue card would actually have been useful.

Max Schreck played Orlock, and he is without a doubt the most effective actor. A lot of the work is done by the make-up, sure, but it’s him who twists his arms and legs into those funny positions, or stands in that ridiculous yet horrible no-neck way. He’s unnerving. He’s like a weeping angel from Doctor Who – impassive, standing there, waiting for the moment when your back is turned and he can strike. You would never want to meet him. You would not want to date him. You would not want him to drink your blood and make you his consort of the night. He rarely speaks or looks anywhere other than straight ahead, more like a zombie than a vampire. The two most famous scenes are his initial dinner with Hutter (when he is at his most animated) and his final feasting on Nina, but to my mind, the moments when he is used most effectively are on the ship taking him to Bremen. I think it’s the confined space that does the trick, and the fact that he actually rises from his coffin in they way you imagine he would! It’s interesting that the ratty/disgusting/silent/stiff-as-a-board vampire has not been more widespread – as soon as Hollywood got their hands on ‘Dracula,’ it was bye-bye Shreck, hello Bela Lugosi in an immaculate dinner jacket, and sexy ever since. Orlock has nothing remotely suggesting sex about him – he doesn’t want Nina for her body or her mind, but for her blood, and that is the end to it.

All the other characters just move around Orlock, really, and there’s nothing much to say about them. Nina is the exception to the rule – her visions, her fragility and her final self-sacrifice make her rather more interesting that her husband. However, that said, I don’t like that the woman has nothing to do except to die. I know it was early days of women’s lib, but give me proto-feminist Helen from The Mummy any day.

One thing I do like about this is that this is the vampire before parodies, before ‘takes,’ before we knew all the stories and thought they were cliché. I’ve heard Nosferatu described, possibly by our friend Ebert, as the only vampire movie which believes in vampires. As a description, that actually works. It’s serious. It’s not trying to be a metaphor for anything (or if it is, it’s too subtle to see). So, yes, I would go for that. I would recommend you see this vampire film that actually believes in vampires, if only once. And if I might make so bold, I would suggest turning the sound off. Let the silence do its work.

shalenbanner

Shalen’s Rating: Ten. Out of ten. Of whatever.

Shalen’s Review: Not being a real film major, I’m not cognizant of this movie’s full impact on screen history, but I know it has been considerable. The film seems to have been elevated to one of those movies that is often referenced by people who have never seen it, like Battleship Potemkin (which I haven’t seen) or Metropolis.(1) Watching this film, it’s not hard to see why it has such influence and why it is so seldom viewed. Nosferatu is stylish. It is atmospheric. It has some of the world’s first visual effects in film. It contains the amazing Max Schreck, without whose onscreen presence this film is nothing.

But it’s very old, and it was filmed in black and white, and the other main protagonist (Gustav Wangenheim as Jonathan Harker) is a pudgy guy wearing long hair and a lot of makeup. The female lead is heavier than her counterpart in Shadow of the Vampire and much more so than the contemporary beauty standard, though she would not look out of place at one of my family’s reunions.(2) There is no sex. There is little violence. There is not overmuch dialogue, and what is there is flashed onto the screen as intertitles in between the characters mouthing things we can’t hear. So you can see why this film is not going to be incredibly popular with filmgoers who prefer watching Kate Beckinsale shooting at things and being mouthed by topless guys wearing colored contacts.(3)

With this important caveat, however, if you consider yourself a cult fan you need to see this movie. It’s well filmed on a small budget. It has some good acting. The camerawork is intimate and in some cases very beautiful, and the 1920’s German sets are beautiful also. And it has an ending that is very different — and in my opinion, much better — than the ending of the work from which it is drawn.(4)

For that matter, this is a very different treatment of the vampire mythos from its source material. This is not the vampire as seducer, the vampire as Freudian metaphor, the vampire as dashing and mysterious creature of the night. This is the horror of immortality without agelessness or beauty. It is vampirism as a real curse, not an “Oh, it’s so awful to be pretty and live forever” curse. The only other film I’ve seen that comes close to this is Cronos, and that film owes a great deal to this one. (Not surprising, since from what I hear Cronos director Guillermo del Toro is fairly fond of Nosferatu.)

Now that I’m down off my high horse, I’ll make one more recommendation regarding this film. It has no soundtrack, so your enjoyment of it will be affected by what music, if any, you choose. My version came on DVD packaged with the original House on Haunted Hill and Night of the Living Dead, and it is scored with heavy metal music. This works far better than the cheery classical soundtrack I first heard with it. If you end up with a version whose music doesn’t seem to fit, turn off the sound and add your own. You’ll be glad you did.

This is a great film and a different kind of viewing experience. I highly recommend it to more or less everyone who considers themselves Mutant, cult, a film geek, or a rabid Anne Rice/Laurell K. Hamilton fan.(5)

1. Which I haven’t seen, either. And by Metropolis I do NOT mean the overhyped one-more-robot-girl anime of that title which, to my chagrin, I have seen.
2. Except that she would be the only one speaking German.
3. Or Tom Cruise nibbling on Brad Pitt and many other people, and talking about how no one else is important, but we felt that sentence would be too long if we left that in.
4. This being Bram Stoker’s Dracula, by which I do not mean the movie.
5. But only if I get to see the look on their face when they first see the Nosferatu makeup.

Isn't she yar?

Isn’t she yar?

Intermission

  • The film Shadow of the Vampire had as its starting premise that there was no Max Schreck, and that F. W. Murnau (played by John Malkovich) hired a real vampire to star in his picture. It featured Braveheart pin-up Catherine McCormack as Greta Schröder as Nina/Ellen. You can guess what happened to her in  the end.
  • This film apparently introduced a fear of the sun, and death by sun, into vampire mythology. Keeping something talking until their demise at dawn is however a feature of many stories
  • The guy who plays Jonathan Harker really does look like Eddie Izzard in Shadow of the Vampire. Ditto Max Schreck and Willem Dafoe. This confirms Shalen’s belief that Willem Dafoe is awesome.
  • Van Helsing thinks everything is a vampire.
  • That makeup seems amazing for 1922 until you realize Mr. Schreck was wearing only false teeth and ears (and fingernails, I dearly hope). Apparently Director Murnau found him “strikingly ugly”.
  • There is some lovely background scenery, which makes sense since it was filmed in the German countryside.
  • Count Orlock’s scenes are obviously filmed in daylight, unless you have one of the later versions where they have been tinted blue.
  • Apparently there’s an old woman at the inn who makes the sign of the cross in a Catholic manner, though most Romanians are Western Orthodox (and consequently do this differently).
  • Count Orlock does not blink onscreen. Ever.
  • No end credits! Things were different in 1922.
  • Filmed between August and October 1921.
  • Count Orlock or Nosferatu is seen on screen for perhaps nine minutes total.
  • All known prints and negatives were destroyed under the terms of settlement of a lawsuit by Bram Stoker’s widow (this film started out as Dracula). Apparently this process was not entirely thorough, as prints began showing up later in Europe.
  • The only known complete and original copy is apparently owned by a German collector of things related to the actor Max Schreck.
  • The name “Schreck” means “fear” or “terror” in German. One or two web sites say this is “obviously” a stage name, but most sources I googled indicate it was actor Max Schreck’s real name. Not much is known about him, and he supposedly never appeared on the set without his makeup, giving rise to silly rumors like the one on which Shadow of the Vampire is based

Groovy Dialogue

Knock: It will cost you sweat and tears… and perhaps a little blood.

Orlock: Blood! Your precious blood!

Orlock: Is this your wife? What a lovely throat!

Van Helsing: And now, gentlemen, here is another type of vampire: a polyp with claws… transparent, without substance, almost a phantom. [A/N: He’s looking at a hydra, a harmless microscopic creature which detects prey with its tentacles. The biology geek in Shalen loves that there are hydras in this movie, even if they are mislabeled.]

Renfield: The Master is coming! The Master is here!

Final intertitle: And at that moment, as if by a miracle, the sick no longer died, and the stifling shadow of the vampire vanished with the morning sun.

If you liked this movie, try:

  • Shadow of the Vampire
  • The Mummy
  • The Golem
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3 Comments

  1. My biggest problem with Nosferatu (or Noseferret as I sometimes like to call it) is the pacing. The first hour just draaaaags, then the final twenty minutes whips by as if they realized suddenly that they had wasted so much time just covering the first quarter of the book. It also didn’t help that I chose to watch it with the commentary track (pretentiously called an audio essay, which should have sent alarm bells ringing in my head). As you could probably guess, the commentator was a pompous jackass who injected some Deep Hurting to the experience.

    But I will give the film credit for remembering that vampires are meant to be repulsive. A lot of people have this idea that Dracula is romantic. I just want to throttle these people and (if the subject is male) give a swift kick to the nuts. If you actually read the book, you will find that Dracula is presented essentially as a rapist. So it would be like saying that Ted Bundy was romantic.

  2. Well, I know people’s opinions are mixed on it nowadays, but I’d still like to see Nosferatu. Anyway, I’ve actually quite enjoyed most silent movies I’ve seen, so I doubt I’d have much of a problem with that aspect of things.
    Incidentally, may I ask where you got your viewing copy? I tried to rent one from Netflix, only to find out that they had several versions, and each had something weird done to it. Call me a snob, but I personally would prefer to avoid heavy metal in my 1920’s movies, thank you very much.

  3. I think the vampiric presence was meant to symbolize epidemic diseases like the bubonic plague (hence all the rats). This is much clearer in the 1979 version directed by Werner Herzog, which is also very very good.

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