Director: F.W. Murnau
Screenplay: Henrik Galeen
Based on a Novel by: Bram Stoker (uncredited)
Starring: Max Schreck, Greta Schröder, Gustav von Wangenheim, Alexander Granach
Producers: Albin Grau, Enrico Dieckmann
Running Time: 95 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I’m going to try and keep the review of the film itself quite brief in my look at the new Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray & DVD re-release of F.W. Murnau’s classic horror film Nosferatu. It is a bona fide classic and has been discussed in great depth over the 91 years since its release so I don’t feel I can add much to the pot. From a personal perspective I came to the film very late on. In fact it was part of my ‘Blind Spot’ list in 2012, films which I felt I ‘should’ have watched previously but hadn’t got around to. Anyone that read my ‘Blind Spot’ post will have seen that I was a little disappointed with Nosferatu, but I’d watched that on a sub-standard transfer steamed online with a weak score. Without the hype that preceded my initial viewing, I put on this well-polished HD restoration in the hope that my love of the film would grow.
For the few of you that haven’t seen or aren’t aware of Nosferatu, it is an unofficial retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula story with the names changed. In fact, the film’s history is almost as famous as the film itself (even spawning a film inspired by the events, E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire). Stoker’s widow Florence sued the production company Prana for copyright infringement, gaining a court order to get all prints of the film destroyed. Luckily the film had already been released in several countries so a number of prints remained in tact.
The film’s plot simplifies the events of the novel (from what I can remember of it), removing most of the side characters. Instead we are left with a pared down story of Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), an employee at an estate agent’s who is sent out to Transylvania to aid the Count Orlok (Max Schreck) in buying a property in town. The Count is an unusual character though who strikes fear into the hearts of the locals. It becomes apparent that he may not be human at all, but a vampire that feasts on the blood and souls of his unwilling victims. He makes his way to the town, spreading a fatal plague along the way which infects both the mind and body.
Nosferatu’s greatest strengths lie in its visuals and overall mood. Murnau creates an undeniably creepy atmosphere, using expressionistic techniques on a low budget and on location. I think this was one thing that surprised me on my initial viewing. I’d heard the film was a classic of German expressionism so I was a little disappointed when I didn’t get the disorientating abstract set designs complete with painted shadows and slanted perspectives. Instead Murnau cleverly shoots with the architecture and nature on hand in the locations themselves, literally framing his characters within the fabric of the film. Some sets were used too, but these aren’t overly abstract, instead subtle changes are made to accentuate characters’ attributes. Narrow doorways frame Orlok to make him look tall and thin and the sets and costumes add to the look to create the otherworldly character.
And it’s the Orlok character that truly makes the film. Hutter is rather useless as a hero (*spoiler* his wife saves the day in the end) and most scenes with him and the other townsfolk are rather bland and uninteresting. The estate agent Knock (Alexander Granach), who is sent mad by the Count, is much more memorable and his scenes in prison crank up the tension in the build up to Orlak’s appearance in the town. What will always sear its way into your mind is the image of the Count himself though. Beneath the make-up and costume, actor Max Schreck truly sells the character through his unnatural posture and movements. It is truly one of cinema’s most recognisable and effective characters and performances.
However, as great as the film’s villain and its visuals are, I still couldn’t shake off the slight disappointment I had with my initial viewing. For me I think the horror of the film has faded a little too much over time. It is certainly creepy, but I wouldn’t say it ever ‘scared’ me or had me at the edge of my seat. Of course much of this is down to the fact that the countless horror films that have followed in its footsteps have taken its techniques and turned them into cliches. Scenes such as that in the pub where all the customers freeze and drop what they’re doing as Hutter explains where he’s heading have been copied and lampooned so often that they have become quite comical.
Away from the atmosphere there isn’t a huge amount left to hang onto either as the story isn’t particularly gripping or well told. Murnau makes great use of intercutting to jump between events, but perhaps too much meat has been trimmed from the bones of the novel. That said, I shouldn’t really bash the film. It’s obviously hugely influential and is loaded with striking imagery as well as an unnerving mood which may not truly frighten by today’s standards, but is still easy to get lost in.
Nosferatu is out on now in the UK on Blu-Ray and DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. It is a brand new restoration, improving upon their previous DVD release (which I haven’t seen but I imagine still looks pretty good). This has been made as complete as possible, including the original intertitles and accompanied by a recording of the score which was originally composed by Hans Erdmann for the film back in 1922. The restoration work is stunning considering the difficulties the film faced and the collation of segments from differing sources. Although there are signs of age (the film is over 90 years old), the level of detail and clarity in the Blu-Ray version is often incredible. The colour tinting has been restored to how it is thought to have been originally intended too. Tinting isn’t always favoured amongst silent movie fans, but it is believed to be how these films were generally watched in the past and I feel it can work nicely when used effectively. For a horror film like Nosferatu it may detract from the traditional gothic black and white look, but the colours often make changes between day and night more clear and the orange of the sun rising at the end is a nice touch.
As well as a top notch transfer, Masters of Cinema treat us to a host of special features. For starters you get two audio commentaries on the film. One features historian R. Dixon Smith and critic Brad Stevens which appeared on the previous release of the film and the other is a new recording featuring film historian David Kalat. On the surface, the new track sounds very cheesy and ‘performed’, especially as it opens, bringing to mind The Simpsons’ Troy Mclure, but as it moves on you realise this is an exceptionally well researched look at the film’s history and background and becomes rather compulsive listening. The older commentary complements it well as it is more concerned with analysing the film than with looking into its history.
Also included in the set is the 53 minute documentary ‘The Language of Shadows’. This is a little slow moving and dry, but, like the new commentary, is very well researched and full of fascinating facts about the film. It looks at the occult leanings of producer and set designer Albin Grau, who is often argued to be as big an influence over the film as Murnau himself. The documentary also takes us back to the actual locations used to shoot the film which is interesting to see and the narrator describes how the scenes were shot in as much detail as is possible.
Two interviews/introductions cap off the set. BFI Film Classics ‘Nosferatu’ author Kevin Jackson talks for 20 minutes about the film. The information comes thick and fast as he rattles through his thoughts on the film and its background. Abel Ferrara’s 12 minute video piece is less effective. The footage is pretty ropey and un-edited (the Blu-Ray warns us about this) and he doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about. It’s a rambling piece which focuses more on Ferrara’s The Addiction than Nosferatu. I’m not sure why the label bothered to include it in this otherwise incredible package other than to cash in on his name as a cult favourite director.
Of course you also get a jam-packed booklet included with the disc. This contains a number of archival and modern pieces from critics and crew on the film’s production and its impact/importance.
All in all this is clearly the definitive release of the film (in the UK at least) which I’d recommend to any fans of silent cinema or vintage horror, even if I have mild reservations about the film itself.