Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)
Directed by: F.W. Murnau
Premise: A loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. The vampire Count Orlock (Max Schreck) relocates from Transylvania to Wisbourg, Germany where he preys on the locals and spreads disease.
What Works: F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is one of those films that is so entrenched in our cultural and cinematic memory that it is easy to take this picture for granted. Images such as Count Orlock’s shadow ascending a staircase or the vampire clutching his chest while vaporizing in the sunlight have become familiar images even to those who have never seen this film. Nosferatu was produced in the era of German Expressionist cinema and it is one of the primary examples of that movement. The picture employs unusual angles and dramatic, high contrast lighting schemes that emphasize shadows. The darkness is alive is this film. But Nosferatu is somewhat unique among the German Expressionist films because the imagery walks the line between realistic and surrealistic styles. The tension between those modes creates an uneasy atmosphere where something fantastic like a vampire might just be plausible. Much of the credit for Nosferatu’s look is bestowed on filmmaker F.W. Murnau, who was one of the major figures of German Expressionist cinema. As the director and a proven craftsman, Murnau certainly deserves a lot of the credit but significant contributions were made by other people, namely Albin Grau who was the producer and production designer. Grau had a background in architecture and the occult and drew upon that knowledge in the design of the film. Occult symbols appear throughout Nosferatu and the sets have a foreboding look. The signature image of Nosferatu is actor Max Schreck as Count Orlock. With his bald head, pointy ears, and fanged front teeth, Orlock’s bat-like appearance has been one of the defining looks of vampire cinema. Orlock’s performance is restrained. He smartly lets the makeup do the work and his slow but deliberate movement would later be echoed in the slasher genre. In many adaptations of Dracula the second most memorable character is Renfield, the madman who is the vampire’s aid. That’s certainly the case in Nosferatu, in which the character has been renamed Knock and is played by Alexander Granach. He possesses a wily energy that’s very comic and reveals one of the unexpected and underappreciated elements of Nosferatu – its humor. Granach’s off the wall performance is obviously comedic but even Schreck has subtle moments of levity. The humor is mordent in a way that is consistent with the rest of the picture, adding to its grim tone. And it is tone above all that defines Nosferatu. The art direction, the filmmaking techniques, and the performances combine to create a horrific atmosphere that is larger than the sum of its parts.
What Doesn’t: The original score from Nosferatu was composed by Hans Erdmann. This score has been lost but was subsequently reconstructed based on some of Erdmann’s other works which were believed to have adapted his original music from Nosferatu. However, Erdmann’s music as presented on the Kino Lorber blu-ray edition of Nosferatu is an inconsistent element of this film. In some places it is quite effective but in others it is not quite as moody or as threatening as the imagery on screen.
Disc extras: As is often the case with films in the public domain, there are lots of different releases of Nosferatu with varying degrees of quality. The 2013 blu-ray edition released by Kino Lorber features two versions: one with new English intertitles and another with the original German intertitles. This release also includes a featurette, a promotional teaser, an image gallery, and clips of other F.W. Murnau films.
Bottom Line: 1922’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is iconic cinema and a century later it continues to be a source of inspiration for filmmakers. But regardless of its influence, Nosferatu is one of the great horror pictures. As with many of the best films in this genre, watching Nosferatu is like experiencing an intense nightmare.
Episode: #921 (October 9, 2022)