Saturday, October 10, 2015

Film Review: Nosferatu

"Nosferatu"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

The first time I saw F.W. Murnau's silent horror film "Nosferatu" (1922) I was greatly impressed by it. I came away believing it was a near masterpiece. I saw the movie a second time, years later. This time I found that I had enjoyed the movie but no longer believed it was a great movie. This I attributed to seeing a poor transfer with a lousy musical score, which can alter the mood one has when watching any silent movie. Then I bought a copy of the movie on DVD, a transfer released by KINO, and found I enjoyed the movie again, but, not for the same reasons I had originally been impressed by it.

"Nosferatu" is a movie I actually believe is not really about a vampire named Count Orlok (Max Schreck). Lets look at the movie's title. Its complete title is "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror". The term "symphony" may not be easily interpreted by today's movie fans. I take "symphony" to mean a ground swelling burst of emotion. The emotion being horror. But, lets change the word. Lets call the movie "Nosferatu: A Tale of Horror". "Nosferatu" I believe is a story of good and evil living side by side in the world. Evil doesn't have to mean a vampire.

The movie starts off by introducing us to Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) and his wife Ellen (Greta Schroder). They are presented as a young married couple deeply in love with one another. Their life together is peaceful and idyllic. Ellen has plenty of free time to play with a kitten and Hutter can pick flowers in their garden for his wife. Danger and violence, if they do exist, are far away.

Hutter works in real estate. His employer is a man named Knock (Alexander Granach) who sends Hutter to Transylvania to meet Count Orlok, who is looking to buy property in their town of Wisborg. Knock tells Hutter this would be a great opportunity for him. There is a lot of money to be made if the deal goes through. Knock also believes he has the perfect place for Count Orlok, an estate right next to Hutter.

Not wanting to waste much time Hutter travels to Transylvania even though Ellen clearly has an intuition something will go wrong. And so Hutter is now a young fool heading out to unknowingly stare evil in the eye.

Count Orlok we learn is a vampire. The townspeople fear him and will not approach his castle. They warn Hutter not to travel at night. Many movie critics (sheep) have pointed out Orlok resembles a rodent. He has a bald head. Long, pointy ears, long finger nails and two large fangs in the front of his mouth. His look inspires fear.

But what does Count Orlok want? Why leave Transylvania? Why travel to Wisborg? Why does he begin to be preoccupied with Hutter and Ellen? All good questions. None of which the movie has answers for. This leads me to believe the movie is not about Count Orlok. It is not about any scheme he has. The movie is about evil forces all around us. Even if we believe we live in an idyllic, carefree world, violence is near us.

On two occasions the movie cuts to Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt) as he gives a lecture to his students on carnivorous plants. We see a Venus fly trap kill a fly. Initially some may not see the point of these scenes. Plot wise they have nothing to do with the movie. At no point in the movie do Professor Bulwer and Count Orlok meet. Professor Bulwer is not a Van Helsing type of character. I tried to come to some logical conclusion to explain these scenes. The best I could come up with is they explain the theory that violence is all around us, even if we aren't aware of it. On the grand scheme of things there are Count Orloks in the world. On a smaller scale there is violence in nature with Venus fly traps. Good and evil living side by side, sometimes completely unaware of it.

When I view "Nosferatu" as a cautionary tale of evil forces in the world, I find it works much better. If I view it as a "vampire movie" things don't add up. Motivations aren't provided. If "Nosferatu" was to be a vampire movie there would need to be a Van Helsing character. Someone to inform the other characters what they are up against. Someone to explain to them how to kill the vampire. Hutter and Ellen make absolutely no attempt, at any point in the movie, to tell the people of their village there is a vampire among them. If this were a vampire movie there would need to be a reason behind Count Orlok's actions and a reason for Knock bringing him to the town.

Perhaps I am prejudice but I cannot believe F.W. Murnau was not aware of this. I cannot bring myself to say Murnau didn't know how to tell a story. Murnau must have had other intentions.

Compared to today's standards "Nosferatu" is not scary but one can see how this movies might have scared audiences in 1922. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie has a coffin lid slowly open as Count Orlok rises from the coffin in a standing position. Another scene shows him down a hallway as he approaches a character. The movie also has great shots of Orlok's shadow towering over characters with his long finger nails reaching out.

For every effective image however the movie does show its age. At times "Nosferatu" has a sense of humor. In one scene Count Orlok sees a picture of Ellen and comments to Hutter his wife has a lovely neck. In other scenes the camera speed is fastened as Count Orlok assembles six boxes, each one filled with dirt. Fastening the camera speed is a technique usually associated with slapstick comedy, think Keystone Kops. If an audiences watches the movie today, they will laugh at the scene. Count Orlok is even shown walking around town carrying his coffin.

Another problem modern movie fans have with silent movies is the acting. They find it over-dramatic. In all honesty, I usually don't. I understand the time period and accept the performances were a product of times and don't think about it. But, I must say, the performance given by Greta Schroder was a bit much for me at times. One scene has her read a book about vampires. After reading a paragraph she then goes into these wild gestures as if she is about to faint. The words in the book are supposed to be so frightening and powerful. Over-all though the performances work.

"Nosferatu" presents itself as a story of written fact. The movie begins with a pages of a book about the Great Death of Wisborg being opened. The intertitles read like a character's narration. The real book however that "Nosferatu" is based on is Bram Stoker's Dracula. Murnau and the movie studio could not obtain the rights to the novel. So, in an attempt to protect themselves from any wrong doing the names of characters were changed. That is why the vampire is called Count Orlok. The widow of Bram Stoker sued and the courts agreed, "Nosferatu" was an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula. All copies were ordered to be destroyed, as the movie studio filed for bankruptcy to avoid any settlement payment.

Today "Nosferatu" is regarded as the first movie adaptation of Stoker's novel, though according to Wikipedia, two versions existed prior. One a Russian film and the other Hungarian. Both are considered "lost". It is seen as the beginning of the "vampire movie" and is routinely recognized as one of the greatest silent horror movies of all-time. Not to mention it is one of F.W. Murnau's most popular movies. The movie was also remade by another German filmmaker, Werner Herzog. I believe it is one of Herzog's best movies.

[Note: There are several versions of "Nosferatu", as it has fallen into the public domain. This review is a reaction to the DVD released by KINO called "The Ultimate DVD Edition". It also includes the original 1922 score written by Hans Erdmann.]