Rating: Not Rated
1 hour, 21 minutes
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Written by Henrik Galeen
Starring Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder
Several years ago, I had the chance to see the Alloy Orchestra perform live at a screening of Nosferatu, one of the earliest vampire films in existence. I will admit that I was skeptical at first. How interesting could a silent film be? How ridiculous would the special effects of the 1920s be compared to those of the Twenty-First-century? But the friend who invited me was excited about it, and as he offered to buy my ticket, I had nothing to lose.
It turns out there silent films can be extremely compelling, and the lack of computer effects forced the production team of Nosferatu to be creative with lighting effects, stop motion, and film processing effects. The stark contrast inherent to German Expressionism works well with early cinema, as the cinema film stocks of the time lacked the tonal gradations of later films. Murnau used this contrast to emphasize the darkness of the real castles he filmed in, lighting the scenes to play up the paleness of the vampire, Count Orlok, or the heroine, Ellen.
Although it is now considered to be a seminal work of the horror genre (as well as being the source of the ‘vampires are destroyed by sunlight’ trope), Nosferatu brazenly ripped off the story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Neither Murnau nor Galeen had bothered to secure the rights to the story, and when Stoker’s widow, Florence Balcombe, discovered the film’s existence, she sued the studio and won. All copies of Nosferatu were to be burned, but some survived to become a cult classic.
In this story, young clerk Thomas Hutter is sent to Transylvania to visit Count Orlok, who is planning to buy a house in Hutter’s hometown of Wisborg, in Germany. After a series of strange occurrences (including Hutter waking up one morning to find puncture wounds on his neck), Hutter finds a book about the creature, Nosferatu, in a local inn. He begins to suspect that his host is one of these creatures. Terrified, Hutter explores the castle and finds Orlok sleeping in a coffin. That night, he witnesses Orlok departing with several coffins, the last of which he climbs into. Hutter falls and awakens later in a hospital. Once he has recovered, he hurries to Wisborg to discover that a mysterious plague has struck the town.
Upon returning to his home, Hutter’s wife, Ellen, is overjoyed to discover that he is alive and well. But she finds the book about the Nosferatu and reads it, though Hutter has told her to leave it alone. With the plague unending and a way to destroy the vampire in hand, Ellen must risk everything to keep her people safe.
Though nearly a century has passed since Nosferatu was made, and incredible advances in filmmaking and special effects have utterly changed the landscape of filmmaking, Nosferatu proves that one needn’t have a Hollywood budget to create enduring films. Nosferatu and silent films of its caliber show us the power of story. It is not the special effects that make a movie memorable, it’s the story that film tells. It is the strength of that story, the actors’ ability to carry it off, and the vision a director has for their work that makes a story endure.
If you ever have the chance to see Nosferatu in a theater– especially if a musical group like Alloy Orchestra is providing a live score and sound effects– take it. Not only is it a prime example of the history of horror films, it is a film experience like nothing from this century.