What do you do when you can’t acquire the rights to Bram Stoker’s Dracula in order to make your vampire flick? You make it anyway, just changing the names and a bit of the plot. Yet F.W. Murnau’s iconic silent vampire film, for all its loose plagiarism, remains a rather singular cinematic work. Even its recreations have never been able to achieve the unsettling creepiness of the original silent Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror.
And yet for a vampire movie the film centers around a young couple. Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) and Ellen (Greta Schröder) are a happily married young couple, still in that awkwardly overly-joyous and happy stage of marriage. Therefore, when Hutter has to travel to the far off land of Transylvania to sell a house to Count Orlok (Max Schreck), it is to much tears and protest from his wife. As he makes his way closer to the counts castle, the people around him grow quieter and odder culminating in the silently creepy count himself.
The film is sometimes less about plot and more about centering around Murnau’s fascinating characters. Hutter is the young, gung-ho guy we’ve seen in many a film. High on life and ready to prove himself at the slightest provocation, he takes his journey in stride. When the locals refuse to drive him up the mountain to Orlok’s mansion he jumps down from the buggie and travels cross country with little hesitation. While at night his imagination runs wild with fear of the supernatural in the day he chalks up his fears to perfectly mundane happenings.
Ellen also has some fascinating moments. When Hutter brings her some flowers instead of doting over them she mourns the fact that he killed the poor flowers. She becomes this innocence of youth. And there is some kind of psychic connection between her and the vampire. She ghostly walks across the edge of a balconies railing in an almost vampiric way. As the film progresses the couples encounter with the vampire changes them.
The real power of Nosferatu is in creating some creepy, unsettling imagery. Max Shreck alone is a creepy looking guy. The lanky body, odd shoulders and distinctly unsettling face creates an iconic form in and of itself. When in motion his stiff and stilted steps make him even more creepy and unsettling. Murnau knows the power of this image and while another filmmaker might shroud this creature of the night in darkness Murnau uses every opportunity to linger on the creepiness of this actor and unsettle us with his slow, eerie movements.
But beyond the performance, Murnau knows how to make the image frightening. Most of the times we see the vampire in motion it is in confined spaces, usually in a tight passage, or a small chamber. He creates this claustrophobic sense of inevitability as the vampire slowly descends on his prey. Murnau also employs the slowing of the film through the camera to create a swift, jarring supernatural feel to the vampire in several instanced. The frames per second used in silent films makes the effect seem more like a fast series of jump cuts than a seamless series of sped up film but the desired effect is still the same.
Nosferatu works best as an early horror film, creating some chilling imagery thanks to a creepy looking actor and some skilful cinematography. But while the film could simply be that and be good Murnau goes beyond that as he fixates on these two young characters and how the vampire becomes this force of change in their lives. It’s Murnau’s pursuit of depth in what is a rather simple film that makes Nosferatu a fascinating watch.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing