Finally got around to watching the 1922 German horror masterpiece Nosferatu this week. It’s kind of brilliant and more than a little scary. Full story after the jump…
Nosfteratu is considered to the first vampire movie, and the well known story goes that F.W. Murnau (the film’s director) was not able to secure the rights to make a film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” so he changed the characters’ names and called it Nosferatu. I’ve seen my fair share of vampire fiction; I had to watch Twilight in class last year and I’ve seen a few seasons of HBO’s True Blood. Vampires are annoyingly popular right now and they’ve over saturated the entertainment industry. It’d be safe to say that I’m a little tired of vampires at the moment. Having said all of that, after watching Nosferatu I was struck with how fresh the film felt, that after 90 years worth of dracula/vampire movies, books, and shows THIS one, the first one still feels the freshest and most interesting. I almost want to say that Nosferatu rejects common vampires tropes and cliches, but it was made before the the cliches exited. One of my favorite touches is the look of the creature, he is not attractive by any means, as most present day vampires are, and he has none of the charisma that Dracula is often famous for. There is also the subtle touch of giving him fangs as his two front teeth rather than on the sides of his mouth, this makes him more reminiscent of a rat or a spider than of the standard vampire. For being an 90 year old silent film it was pretty dang scary.
Often the common idea of silent era filmmaking was that of crazy costumes, cheesy looking sets, and lots of over acting. People often thing of quickly made films from directors who’s credits include 400+ films. I think of that image from the classic musical Singin’ In the Rain in which the main characters are in a studio while 5+ silent films are being quickly shot and thrown together. The idea is that there was not much care taken into putting this films together, not a lot of thought to the style beyond what was easiest to shoot. Set the camera there and yell “action”. But then I see something like this and think how much though F.W. Murnau must have put into every shot of this film and the care he took in making this piece.
Briefly, Nosferatu is essentially the story of Dracula. A young married man, Hutter, is asked by his employer, a greedy real estate man, to go to the far away castle of Count Orlock to make arrangements for the Count to purchase a house in their small German town. Hutter goes, experiences some dark, strange activity, and is scared out of his mind. Orlock then travels back to Hutter’s town and brings with him the Black Plague which starts to kill off the inhabitants of the town. Past that, I won’t spoil the ending for you.
Nosferatu is ALL about the atmosphere. Every shot is there in order to add to the overall atmosphere that Murnau is creating. As Hutter gets closer and closer to the Count’s castle the darkness slowly creeps up on him. Murnau’s use of shadow in the film is nothing short of brilliant. Shadows are everywhere and are especially (and unnaturally) prominent in the darkness of the Count’s castle.
I look to the very first shot of Orlock himself in which he emerges from the dark shadows of a part of his castle. All we see is complete blackness until the tiny stark white head of the creature emerges. Orlock’s white head and hands contrast perfectly with his black clothing, and furthermore, those black clothes blend in seamlessly with the darkness behind him. It almost makes you wonder where do the shadows end and where does Orlock begin? For the rest of the film Orlock is consistently framed within shadows like this making it clear that he is a creature of darkness, almost from the shadows themselves. This may be what makes the film so scary.
The audience sees the grotesque shadow stalking up the staircase in the climax of the film, but we never see the figure itself in this scene (see the first photo in this post). The very next shot after the famous staircase shot shows, once again, the shadow of Orlock reaching for the bedroom door of Hutter’s young wife. And again we never see the figure himself reach for that door, almost as if the monster is shadow, a complete and utter darkness. Often the the shadows in the film appear unnatural and staged, they draw attention to themselves, and I think that’s the point. The audience is meant to see and be thinking about the shadows because it is in that darkness that the atmosphere of dread and despair are created. It’s some brilliant work on the director’s part and it all works together to create a great piece.
Murnau created something special with this film. It is an incredibly well thought out piece of art and still, to this day, stands as an atmospherically scary horror film.
*Check out Nosferatu on Netflix Instant Streaming