Movie Review: Nosferatu


Rating: Not Rated
1 hour, 21 minutes
German Expressionist/Horror
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.

14 thoughts on “Movie Review: Nosferatu

  1. I got to see this film with a live orchestra and loved it! I remember thinking how lame it was gonna be and I have no idea who or what convinced me to go. I loved this post.
    x The Captain

  2. There is this moment in the movie when the main character is reading the book warning of Nosferatu. He laughs and throws the book, and that thing bounces so hard that I nearly lost it in a fit of giggles the first time I saw the movie. In fact, I backed up and watched him throw the book about three times because it was so hilarious to me.

    I’m a big fan of movies before CGI. I think CGI has made many filmmakers lazy, whereas the need to be creative pushed directors of the past to try new things with awesome effects. Take something simple like Hitchcock backing up his camera dolly while zooming in. What a fantastic effect!

  3. I don’t remember the book throwing, but it sounds hilarious! I couldn’t have rewound it in the theater, though…

    I agree on the CGI. It’s overused, and used in places it doesn’t need to be. Practical effects always seem to be better (the “bigatures” of Lord of the Rings, or dewdrop fairy Oona being portrayed by a lightbulb on fishing line in Legend). It seems like so many directors just say “We’ll take care of that in post” instead of letting their creative team figure out how to do it on set, which they can do more often than directors think. It makes the movies visually weaker, I think.

  4. Interview with the Vampire is a great example of a creative team that makes a movie special. Claudia and the woman burnt to a crisp and floating away when Louis touches them — that was an ash sculpture with an armature that was designed to fall apart in a certain way. But they had ONE take to do it in because it’s a sculpture. Same thing with Santiago’s beheading. Took hours to make his head and torso appear removed, but it’s really him!

  5. They did similar things with the bodies in Sleepy Hollow. The bodies were built onto an armature designed to fall in a certain way, and the heads were sculpted to be as lifelike as possible, so when the headless horseman killed the characters, it all looked incredibly realistic.

  6. Excellent review! This is one horror classic I am yet to see. It is very interesting to read the info on how the film “ripped off” Dracula. Since it was the 1920s, I don’t think copyright laws were that strong anyway, so I guess things like that simply happened. This is one movie that inspired Tim Burton in his great creations, so I have always been curious to see it for this reason alone, too.

  7. Thanks! Copyright laws in the US and England, at least, were fairly well developed by the end of the 19th century, so I am not surprised that Stoker’s widow won her lawsuit. I’m just surprised that Nosferatu survived, as so many other films from this era have been lost forever.

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