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Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's prototypical scare epic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror was originally mired in terrible legal issues -- the film was produced as an uncredited and unlicensed version of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Whether by design or not, one of the world's acknowledged master directors was at one time a major intellectual property pirate. A British court ordered that all prints of Nosferatu be destroyed, but that edict was unenforceable in Germany. The producers Prana Film sold the picture, which was then further cut up for different versions. We owe a debt to archivists in various countries that saved and preserved various cuts of Murnau's film.
Although the time frame is set back to 1838, many story details are unchanged from the book. A journey to the vampire's castle must be finished on foot when the superstitious locals refuse to go the final mile. The evil vampire leaves his remote castle abode to find a victim in Germany, not England. Largely ellipsed in later versions is the sea voyage for Dracula's coffins. Almost as in Alien, the ghoul below decks corners and kills the frantic crew one by one. The ship arrives as an unmanned phantom vessel. In 1922 seaports still did commerce with old-fashioned sailing ships; Murnau's camera angle of the Plague Ship arriving is a stunner.
But Murnau dropped almost all of Stoker's characters, and reimagined the concept of Dracula in folk tale terms. This "Graf Orlok" (Max Schreck) is no handsome foreigner, but a pale, obscene ghoul with a bulbous, spider-like head, staring eyes and rat-like teeth. Orlok moves slowly and stiffly, gesturing with fingers tipped in claws three inches in length. Forget Twilight and its teen fashion model vampires -- this bloodsucker is a human tick, a walking leech. He's something to be exterminated.
The Jonathan Harker character Hutter (Gustav von Waggenheim) is bitten but retains intact in mind and will. Realizing what Graf Orlok is up to, Hutter must race home to protect his wife, Ellen (Greta Schröder). Murnau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen drop all religious context, and instead describe the supernatural vampire by providing examples from nature. The "Paracelsian" Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt) lectures us on spiders and the microscopic Hydra (which is transparent, and phantom-like). The book's business with Christian symbols and reflections in mirrors is replaced by a mysterious theme of spiritual-telepathic communication and domination. Orlok's coded letters transform Hutter's employer Knock (Alexander Granach) into a mad slave to his vampiric 'master'. Like the novel's Renfield, Knock is committed to an asylum. He can sense when the vampire has arrived, bringing the plague with him.
Hutter, Ellen and Graf Orlock make an odd triangle. Murnau intercuts scenes to indicate that Ellen is aware, across hundreds of miles, that Hutter has been bitten by the vampire. Orlock seems to detect that Ellen is "listening in", spiritually speaking. As in a fairy tale, the love of the innocent and defenseless Ellen proves the only force that can quell the power of Evil, as represented by the vampire and his accompanying shipload of plague-infested rats.
The sexuality implied in the story is just as strong as in later versions. Ellen instinctually knows that Orlok wants more than her blood; he's fixated on her and desires to possess her in her bed. Hutter treated Ellen as an innocent, when she is actually well aware of the 'darker' side of life: remember her first dialogue about the "killed" flowers. To save Hutter and the city, 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.
In other words, this very early cinema classic carries more than its share of potent, daring ideas.
Murnau's images of the vampire in action remain unforgettably eerie. Nosferatu imagines Evil in nightmare terms, slow and other-worldly. Orlock creeps through doorways and out of hatches like an insect in slow motion. Merely being in his presence is hypnotic, overpowering. Hardened sailors cower and blubber at the sight of him. Ellen is sent into swooning convulsions when Orlok focuses his mind on her, from his new dwelling just across the canal.
Nosferatu has the theme of the plague to back up its fantasy: the shots of morticians in top hats carrying coffins in the street is the kind of noon-time nightmare that Ingmar Bergman would return to decades later. As was the norm for 1922, many scenes are covered in one wide shot, but Murnau moves in for medium shots as well, and at one point tries out a matched continuity cut. That this action cut is not smooth makes one believe that no Movieola-like viewer was available at the time, to enable editors to cut on motion; for all we know, some of the editing may have been done directly to the negative. Some camera tricks have dated in ways that diminish their effect. The negative image of Orlok's "ghost coach" might have alarmed viewers 91 years ago, but means nothing now. Likewise, the pixillated fast-motion shots of Orlock loading his coffins onto a wagon were meant to represent the ghoul's super-strength. We've long associated the effect with silent comedies.
Roman Polanski designed his marvelous The Fearless Vampire Killers as an homage to the horror genre. His actors dress like characters in Dreyer's Vampyr as well as Nosferatu. Polanski himself wears a costume similar to Hutter's, and even enacts a stylized grimace copied exactly from the actor von Wangenheim. Further proving the connection, Polanski employs Nosferatu's same fast-motion trick several times in his Vampire Killers.
The most effective shots use shadows of Orlock's clawed hands to terrific effect -- they creep up walls and across entire rooms, as if the monster were radically changing shape, spreading like a black blot. Simple as they are, these images communicate the feeling of a nightmare to people everywhere.
I will guess that a majority of film fans have seen Nosferatu in at least one version or condensation. Be aware that some older academic studies were done in reference to a cut version made for English language exhibition, in which the inter-titles were re-written. Surrealists based entire arguments on an inter-title that was at one time inserted just before Hutter crosses the bridge on the way to Dracula's castle. It made Nosferatu sound like a consciously surreal creation: "Across the river he entered the region of phantoms". 1 Unfortunately for those earlier film scholars, that title card wasn't part of Murnau's original. No matter how one reacts, it's important to appreciate the fact that Nosferatu was filmed before any horror movie conventions had been established. The popular Stoker book depends on an epistolary format; dispite its use of concept and plot essentials, Murnau's visual interpretation is an original, cinematic creation.
Kino Classics' Blu-ray of Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is yet another exacting restoration by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung. 16mm and video versions have never done justice to Murnau's film, but the German experts have assembled this best possible presentation from copies found in various archives, recreating occasional lost inter-titles. Little indicators acknowledge which titles are not originals. The only time this causes confusion is in the main title sequence, where a card appears crediting Bram Stoker's Dracula. If Nosferatu was a pirated adaptation, how can that be an original title card? 2
The film quality is for the most part consistent. Sharpness and contrast are excellent, giving us a better look at Fritz Arno Wagner's cinematography than ever before. But all shots show signs of heavy wear, with many tiny digs and scratches. Nosferatu has not been given a digital makeover, which is good news for students that want to see the exact original film texture. The trade-off is that some shots are slightly unsteady, and that the contrast occasionally fluctuates, again only slightly. I'm splitting hairs here so don't get the idea that these are real flaws; this Nosferatu plays far better than anything I've seen.
The Germans have slowed down the frame rate, which makes the actors' motions more natural and adds considerably to the nightmarish creeping of Max Shreck's ghastly vampire. Distributing the odd number of film frames to 30fps video occasionally creates bumps in smooth motions.
One last note -- on the only other older copy I have of this title, the cropping seems much tighter. Apparently one of the better-looking sources for Nosferatu was a misprinted copy that had a false frame line intruding near the top. This frame line is not present in this new Blu-ray, but since my monitor overscans a tiny bit, I am unable to confirm if the framing is consistently correct. The telltale shot is the one in which the vampire levitates to a standing position from his coffin in the hold of the ship. The new copy has no breaks in the motion, but Max Shreck's head is still tight to the frame line on top, perhaps cut off a bit.
The original Hans Erdmann score is simply excellent, and almost as dynamic as classic Hammer music. It comes complete with a brief overture. It can be audited at DTS 5.1 or in 2.0 stereo.
Most of Kino's classic German silents have been presented in English inter-title versions only. For Nosferatu we get two separate Blu-ray discs. The first is the English language adaptation and the second the FWMS's original German restoration. English subs back up the original German text. The advantage of the German copy is that book pages, notes, etc., are original insert shots, not fakes or plain writing on black.
The extras are on the English version disc. The Language of Shadows is a 52-minute Spanish documentary, adapted by Bret Wood, about Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau and the influence of Satanist Alistair Crowley. The informative show gives detailed descriptions, with photos, of a number of Murnau silent films made before Nosferatu, almost all of which are now lost. We see many of the film's original filming sites, quite a few of which survived the Allied bombing of WW2 and are all but unchanged. In the segment about Crowley several occult researchers trace the Satanist's influence through Murnau's associates. We learn that the company "Prana Film" is a Crowley reference. The coded letters read by real estate agent Knock are written in one of Crowley's Satanic codes.
Kino also includes a hefty selection of excerpts from other Murnau titles it controls, and an image gallery.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. I can't find the exact text quote; I think this memory version is close.
Hi Glenn -- Great review, just one correction:
"Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's prototypical scare epic ... was originally produced as an uncredited and unlicensed version of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Whether by design or not, one of the world's acknowledged master directors was at one time a major intellectual property pirate." ... "The only time this causes confusion is in the main title sequence, where a card appears crediting Bram Stoker's Dracula. If Nosferatu was a pirated adaptation, how can that be an original title card?"
In fact, the film was promoted on the posters and the credits as "freely adapted from Dracula". They were naïve enough to think this would cover them, when in fact it was what alerted Ms Stoker in the first place! The rest of the story is in David J Skal's book Hollywood Gothic.
Murnau had pulled a similar trick in 1920 with Der Januskopf, which is a lift from Jekyll and Hyde, starring Conrad Veidt and featuring a youngish Bela Lugosi! It's lost, though.
On another subject, I first encountered Nosferatu in PD form, through an English print made in the 1940s, translated from a French print. I bet you've probably seen this at some point. Anyway, the print restored the majority of the Stoker names (so the vampire is called Dracula, the hero Harker, etc) but for some reason the town of Wisborg was renamed Bremen - and no-one seems to know why!
I also refer you to the ChiaroScuro Nosferatu page.
Can't wait to read your Intolerance review! Thanks, Ian
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