Director: F.W. Murnau
Writer: Henrik Galeen
Due out 18 November 2013
Louder Than War’s Ryan Gumbley reviews Eureka! Entertainments newly restored silent cinema horror classic, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, part of their award-winning The Masters of Cinema Series.
While Bela Lugosi is the recognised and more palatable face of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Max Schreck is the original and certainly more sinister one. Except, of course, he isn’t Count Dracula; he’s Count Orlok in Nosferatu, an unauthorised adaptation of Stoker’s literary classic. In fact, we’re fortunate that we can even watch the film today after Stoker’s heirs sued and a court ordered all copies of Nosferatu to be destroyed – luckily a few slipped through the net.
Murnau’s expressionist horror landmark is now getting a 1080p Blu-ray release by Eureka! in their ‘The Masters of Cinema’ series, newly restored and complete with the score that played with the film at the time of its initial release. As one of the most celebrated silent-era films, a horror touchstone and a key film in 1920s German expressionist cinema, Nosferatu is vital from whichever angle you choose to look at it. Most notably it kick-started the cinema’s fascination with Count Dracula which remains to this day, and no one has quite matched Nosferatu for inventiveness or sheer visual terror thus far.
Count Orlok himself bears no resemblance to the Dracula made popular by Universal and Bela Lugosi in the 1930s; Orlok is nowhere near as human as his comparatively suave, clean cut successor. As the film progresses Orlok’s rat-like appearance seems to intensify. He scuttles around moving more like beast than man, with darkened eyes, claw like fingers, pointy ears and teeth borrowed from a rat rather than the now time-honoured vampire bat fangs – making him the ugliest vampire to appear on screen.
This distinctive visual representation of Dracula can be attributed to producer Albin Grau who oversaw set design, costumes and make up for Nosferatu. Grau was also an occultist who brought his interest in the occult to the film in very subtle ways, for example when Orlok sends a letter it is written in occultist symbols – completely meaningless to anyone without knowledge of such things. Director F.W. Marnau, on the other hand, brought a fascination in German romantic art to Nosferatu; direct celluloid imitations of paintings by the likes of Caspar David Friedrich, Henry Fuseli and Arnold Böcklin are woven into the fabric of the narrative throughout.
The story starts in Wisbourg, Germany where Knock (Alexander Granach) – a strange looking estate agent – receives a letter from Count Orlok stating his wish to buy a derelict house in the area. Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is then sent by Knock to Orlok’s castle to discuss the transaction. As Hutter blindly marches towards the fiery pits of hell, we begin to get a sense of impending doom as the very mention of Count Orlok virtually stops time at a roadside inn. He carries on undeterred, even having a good chuckle at the forewarning ‘The Book of the Vampires’ along the way.
Hutter’s laughter doesn’t last past dinner at the castle though. When Hutter cuts his finger on a bread knife Orlok’s bloodlust bursts out into the open. Hutter doesn’t remember what happened the night before when he awakes the next day but eventually realises that he must escape the castle and return to his wife Ellen – but Orlok is heading the same way.
Orlok manages to hitch a ride below the deck of a ship along with coffins filled with earth and plague carrying rats. The boat scenes also provide a number of (for the time) innovative visual trickery, as the Count appears and disappears in front of the eyes of the sailors whose lives he takes to survive. By the time the ship docks the only living things on board are the rats and Orlok. One of the masterstrokes of Nosferatu was the idea to make the vampire not only a beastly being capable of sucking the lifeblood out of people, but also the bringer of the plague, the Black Death. This turns Orlok into a grim reaper-type figure with the death toll rising as he sweeps through the town.
For all his deathly deeds and connotations however, Orlok is impossible to hate. Like all of horror’s greatest monsters (most of which are directly influenced by Nosferatu) Orlok embodies human isolation and abject loneliness, forever trapped by his own afflictions. It’s his desire for Hutter’s wife Ellen which eventually leads to his undoing. Orlok can’t resist her temptations as she sacrifices herself so that Orlok, essentially chasing the girl, is caught off guard by the morning sun, which of course only means one thing – perhaps a confirmation of his unrelenting isolation, perhaps a comment on the fleeting relief of human relationships; either way, Count Orlok is no more.
You shouldn’t believe that Nosferatu is outdated, nothing more than a product of its time or only for those with an avid interest in silent-era cinema, the same way you shouldn’t simply believe the hype. Just watch it, and lose yourself in Murnau, Galeen and Grau’s Symphony of Horror.
– Brand new high-definition restoration by Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung
– Two audio commentaries: one newly recorded by film historian David Kalat; the second by historian R. Dixon Smith and critic Brad Stevens
– The Language of Shadows, a 53-minute documentary on Murnau’s early years and the filming of Nosferatu
– New video interview with BFI Film Classics Nosferatu author Kevin Jackson
– Newly translated English subtitles with original German intertitles
– More surprises to be revealed closer to release date!
– PLUS: a 56-page booklet featuring writings and rare imagery
All words by Ryan Gumbley. More work by Ryan on Louder Than War can be found here.