Nosferatu: a symphony of Horror (1922) Image Entertainment Starring Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim

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Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)

Image Entertainment

Starring Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim,

Alexander Granach, and Greta Schroeder

Art Direction by Albin Grau, Cinematography by F.A. Wagner

Directed by F.W. Murnau
This is the earliest surviving vampire movie. There were, allegedly, two earlier films, a Russian and a French version. These versions no longer exist. Murnau's Nosferatu survives only because copies were in private collections and escaped the court order to destroy the film as the film company had failed to get copyright release from the Bram Stoker estate. (Bram Stoker was the author the original Dracula novel).

Nosferatu is an important example of German Expressionism which gives the film its distinctive use of light, shade and architectural angles. It is important as well for the special effects and camera work that give the film its visually interesting look, e.g. Murnau slightly changed the speed of the camera for these scenes, and the quick, jerky movement of the horses and the carriage looks sinister and unnatural.
Also, one of the shots of the coach ride was printed on negative stock, making the branches of the trees look sharply ashen against a deep black sky. As an example of his cinematographical genius, Murnau changed Orlok's costume and the drapery around the coach from their original black to white. With this alteration, the costume and the coach appear black in both the positive and negative shots. The result was an eerie image that appears surreal and subtly out of this world.

SOURCE: Film - The Critics' Choice. Edited by Geoff Andrew, 2005.

1) History/Context

In 1897, English author Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, the seminal horror novel that brought centuries-old European folklore into the scientific age and gave it an alarmingly effective home in a modern urban setting.

Fast-forward to Germany between the world wars, a place and time now associated with economic turmoil, ethnic tensions, Weimar decadence, bold artistic experimentation, and revolutionary leaps in new directions of thought and expression. Pioneering filmmakers, products of that environment, created works that helped invent cinema as we know it today (some of those directors later became dynamic visionaries in the U.S. film industry after the rise of Hitler). Many screen images and techniques from that era remain powerful, and not just because they were copied by Hollywood for the next 80 years: the omnisexual allure of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel; Dr. Caligari sending his Somnabulist into a dream-distorted world; Fritz Lang's stratified Metropolis and female android; the Golem presaging Frankenstein's Monster by more than a decade; and, of interest to us here, the nosferatu — undead — Count Orlok rising stiff as a board from his coffin, seeking prey.

Directed by German Expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau and scripted by Henrik Galeen, Nosferatu (1922) was first in the endless string of motion picture adaptations of Dracula. And like the good Count himself, it's a movie that was almost destroyed forever, a stake through its heart. It's appropriate to extend the metaphor by saying that Nosferatu itself began a tradition that's been a staple of Dracula movies since the 1930s — it rose from the dead when its foes weren't looking. The stake through its nitrate heart, after all, being merely a human legal decree (i.e. the series of legal battles that ensued with Bram Stoker’s widow over the plagiarism charges).

2) Murnau's mastery and mesmerism
Much of Nosferatu's effectiveness comes from the sheer look of it. Like other Expressionist directors, Murnau understood the power of shadows and chiaroscuro. Darkness and light frame scenes and scene elements with great effectiveness, thus adding to the artfulness and further removing the stage-play look we see in other films from the period. Special effects are used sparingly and only with deliberate purpose. Murnau used techniques of positive-negative reversal, stop-motion, double exposure, and other tricks that added to the movie's effect while advancing the craft of filmmaking technique in general.
Also worth noting is the movie's visual authenticity. Nosferatu's realism was achieved largely through the then-unusual use of location filming. Unlike the stage-bound dreamscape of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, many of Nosferatu's sets are the real thing. Murnau and his producer/art director Albin Grau took their cameras and crew to the western Tatras in Slovakia (Czechoslovakia at that time). The rugged mountain region surrounding remote Orava castle, used for Orlok's lair, is desolate and Lovecraftian, befitting its distorted inhabitant. The castle and other set pieces can still be visited today.
Nosferatu also marks one of the earliest uses of simultaneous montage as a means of telling two parts of a story at one time while also building tension. On several occasions, intercutting of simultaneous scenes adds dimension to the story or, as with the Professor's lecture, provides symbolic resonance. Through Murnau's editing, we see that the supernatural connection between Orlok, Ellen and Hutter is separated by great distance but not by time or love or hunger. Orlok exists above the laws of nature, Murnau shows us, and perhaps it's his presence that charges Ellen's psychic bond of love with Hutter, and through Hutter to Orlok. It is this bond that ultimately leads to the monster's destruction.
Subtext is most often in the eye of the beholder. There are those who claim that Nosferatu is "really about" Germany's fear of Eastern European immigrants, of the "vampiric menace" and "plague" represented by what could be described as Orlok's Semitic caricature features. So, did Nosferatu predict the war-fueled fears and prejudices that soon led to the rise of Nazism is Germany? Or is Murnau's movie merely a well-told monster story, one visualized from images out of nightmares that are universal across ideologies and social changes?

3) Max Schreck: more than just another Dracula

Of course, by far the most memorable part of this movie is the title character and the actor who plays him. Max Schreck gives the vampire a look and manner vastly different than the later romanticized Draculas that so shape our imaginings today. Whoever Orlok was before he became so tragically cursed, there seems to be little left of him now. In a scene that, like Stoker's book, welds the ancient lore of vampires onto a modern scientific context, a classroom Professor's lecture symbolically compares Orlok to carnivorous plants and insects. This is an entity more cadaver than man, a rat-faced being that evokes animal as well as human elements. Schreck's appearance and movements are unnatural in the strongest senses of the word, so Orlok projects an eerie presence that is unforgettable.

Whereas Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman and so many other Draculas play the vampire as refined upper-class European nobility, Orlok's emaciated form is far larger than that — he is disease, pestilence, cancer. His arrival affects not just individuals, but the entire community. What had been a serene, lyrically beautiful land is now a place of madness, starvation, and doom. It is no coincidence that swarms of rats are his familiars and his coffins are filled with earth from the graves of the Black Death. At the climax, we often see only his shadow on a wall or flowing like a black infection across Ellen's body. He is more than merely his corporeal form, and it's easy to believe that this vampire's shadow alone could waste us away.
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