Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu (1922), directed by F.W. Murnau, written by Henrik Galeen, based on a novel by Bram Stoker, starring Max Shreck, Gustav Von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach, Ruth Landshoff, Wolfgang Heinz

It might be considered as a small miracle that Nosferatu exists anymore. Before filming Nosferatu the director Murnau wanted to make an official adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but could not secure the rights to it. This little obstacle didn't weight him down, as he adapted the novel anyway, changing locations and characters names, but keeping the core of the story about an ancient vampire lord, who gets smitten by a wife of a young man. This didn't fly with the widow of Stoker, who sued Murnau and won. But as Murnau didn't have any money to actually pay any settlement it was ordered that every copy of the movie would have to be destroyed.

As luck has it though, several copies did survive. They were not complete, but they did survive and the now horror classic was preserved for the posterity. Later on more complete versions were found and the current releases of the movie are most likely as close to the originally premiered release that can be. So all things considered, it might be a small miracle, that Nosferatu exists at all.

Knock (Granach) sends young Thomas Hutter (Von Wangenheim) to see count Orlok (Shreck) about a transaction of an old mansion. Hutter leaves his young wife Ellen (Schröder) and heads to the Carpathian mountains, where the count dwells. After arriving at the castle of Orlok, it soon comes evident, that not all is right about the old count and even when he wakes up in the morning with bite marks on his neck, he suspects nothing wrong, thinking it was mosquitos or some such bloodsuckers.

Meanwhile back at home, Ellen is waning away because of her longing for her husband. She's also riddled with nightmares, making the doctors puzzled of her strange condition. Little she knows, that the count has been smitten of her picture he happened to see among Thoma's belongings.

In horror Thomas watches how the count loads a carriage full of coffins, making one of them his own travelling coffin. The horse carriage bolts forward and Thomas realizes the truth: the count has left toward Germany and not only to live in his new house but to get Ellen as well.

The situation is as follows: Ellen pines away, Knock has been struck by insanity and has been locked to asylum, a plague washes the lands Orlok travels on and Thomas is bedridden back in the Carpaths. Orlok arranges his coffins to be loaded on a ship, from which follows perhaps the best-known sequence of Nosferatu, where he rises from his coffin stick straight, drives the crew insane and makes the ship a plague rat spewing ghost vessel.

Hutter speeds back home, just in time to see how Ellen sacrifices herself in order to destroy Orlok. There's a segment of a book shown a couple of times, that states that the only way to kill a nosferatu is for a pure woman to distract him long enough for the sun to rise. This can be only done if the woman willingly gives her blood to him. And that is what Ellen ends up doing, dying in the process.

While Nosferatu is a creative and visually interesting horror movie, it is most well known for a couple of striking scenes as well as the count Orlok himself. More precisely, it's known for the appearance of Orlok, which I've heard described resembling a walking penis. Shreck really isn't a suave looking vampire the literary counterpart of his, Dracula, is often portrayed as. From the get-go, Shreck's Orlok is a creepy, thin man with odd, crazy eyes and very offputting mannerism.

When Orlok finally shows his true form, the bloodsucking vampire, he manages to transform from just creepy to a genuinely terrifying apparition. Somehow he seems bonier, his eyes sunk deep into his skull. Teeth are sharp and his ears grow long and pointy. In all, he turns into something you don't want to meet at night in a dark alley. Or even a well-lit parking lot for the matter.

The narrative of Nosferatu is a bit simplistic, but then the movie is only around 90 minutes long. It simplifies and omits a lot from the novel and as it is a silent movie, it doesn't have the luxury of telling things through dialogue. What it lacks in the narrative cohesion, it wins back aplenty through the visuals. As it belongs to the German Expressionist horror family, a lot of told through symbolism and stylized sets. Not to a degree of something like the Cabinet of Dr Caligari, but a lot of things on the narrative work more on a symbolic level, be it the plague that spreads on the wake of the count or the feverish illness grasping Ellen and the insanity of Knock.

Despite I've seen Nosferatu before, it always is surprising how well it still works. There is a certain level of agelessness about it, making it feel like something that exists beyond the time it was made. I do think a lot of that comes from the fact that certain aspects of the movie have been branded in the general knowledge of the modern western culture. And at a part, it comes from the old tropes the story uses, the young lovers and the age-old horror that tries to separate them. Then there's the thing, that Nosferatu also is a tragedy.

Somehow it feels almost bizarre, that a movie like Nosferatu was done as early as in 1922. While it has its own share of the certain naivety of the time, the ideas it manages to convey beyond that are nothing short timeless.

There are several different version of Nosferatu in circulation, some considered complete, some incomplete. Depending on the version, the movie can be of varying lengths, up to 94 minutes or below that. It can also come with a variety of different soundtracks, as the original score was half lost, so different publishers have attached different scores to it. Some versions of it come in full black and white, but some do come colour tinted, like the original theatrical release version of the movie did. This means, that the scenes are shown through a colour filter, tinting the scene in yellow, blue or red, depending on what times it's supposed to happen or what mood is sought for the scene. Also, after the copyrights lapsed for the Bram Stoker's Dracula, some versions have even altered the title cards and changed the character names to their book versions.

For those interested, here is a more throughout guide for the different DVD and Blu-ray releases of Nosferatu.

I do think Nosferatu is one of those movies everyone, especially those who like horror movies, should see at least once. It might not be a movie you like or even fall in love with, but it still is an intriguing piece of cinema history. Even if you are one of those people who can't watch silent movies or even black and white movies, Nosferatu still is a movie you should see with an open mind. And who knows, maybe you'll even end up enjoying it.