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Dustin Putman

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Nosferatu  (1922)
3 Stars
Directed by F.W. Murnau.
Cast: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schroeder, Alexander Granach, Georg H. Schnell, Ruth Landshoff, John Gottowt, Gustav Botz, Max Nemetz, Wolfgang Heinz, Albert Venohr.
1922 – 81 minutes
Not Rated (mature themes and mild violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 2008.

Why have you killed them...the beautiful flowers?!

In 2008, vampires are as large a part of the horror landscape as any other form of cinematic villain. Long since gone mainstream and enduring over the decades, fanged bloodsuckers have been further popularized through modern fiction writing by Anne Rice ("Interview with the Vampire," "Queen of the Damned," "The Vampire Lestat"), Stephen King ("Salem's Lot") and Stephanie Meyer (The "Twilight" series), as well as on television (Alan Ball's HBO series "True Blood" and Showtime's anthology episode "Masters of Horror: The V Word"). Before them all was Bram Stoker's classic 1897 novel "Dracula," loosely based on the real-life case of Vlad the Impaler, and the first film out of the gate to be (unofficially) adapted from that work was 1922's "Nosferatu."

A landmark motion picture—in addition to being one of the first horror movies to delve into the mythology of vampirism, it's one of the first horror movies, period—"Nosferatu" still holds up surprisingly well. Taking into account that it is of the silent era, and that subsequent horror films were able to learn from this one and mold more effective ways of frightening an audience through the evolving conventions of the genre, "Nosferatu" is not so much scary anymore as it is a valuable milestone in the history of cinema. It is additionally a fascinating study of mood and carefully constructed mise en scene, using shadows, mirrors, and a gloom-induced set design to weave a weighty sense of impending doom.

Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is a bright-minded realtor living in the peaceful town of Wisborg, Germany. When his shady boss, Knock (Alexander Granach), tells him that Count Orlok (Max Schreck) is interested in buying property in their cozy community, Hutter packs his bags, leaves worried wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) with friends, and sets off for Transylvania. Once welcomed into Orlok's castle, buried deep within the Carpathian Mountains, Hutter senses that something isn't quite right with his host. When he accidentally cuts his finger at dinner, Orlok grabs his hand and sucks the blood away. Sleeping all day and awake at all hours of the night, the Count eventually signs the necessary papers and sets out for his new home in Wisborg. Stowing away on a ship with his coffin and claiming the lives of the captain and his crew, Orlok finally arrives in town—an event that few seem to notice as fear of an invading plague sweeps over the village. Ellen, however, whose feverish sleep has led to sleepwalking and psychic visions, has stumbled upon her husband's book about vampires, and knows that the only way to stop the evil is for a woman to willingly sacrifice herself.

"Nosferatu" is a film that almost wasn't. When German expressionist director F.W. Murnau chose to adapt "Dracula" without permission, changing the characters' names but otherwise unmistakably following the narrative of Bram Stoker's tale, Stoker's widow was none too pleased when she found out. She consequently sued Murnau and demanded that all copies of the picture be destroyed—an order that obviously was not carried through. The film fortunately survived, becoming a vital bridge between cinema's heyday and the horror genre that would follow.

By today's standards, "Nosferatu" is tame. Violence is largely inferred rather than shown, and the only blood glimpsed is on Hutter's finger when he slices it with a knife. Acting, as was customary in silent films, is animated, boasting exaggerated emotions as a means of making up for words that cannot be audibly spoken. Dialogue, of course, is relegated to intertitles. There is a poeticism and innocence to this antiquated format, though, one that sadly has been all but forgotten (or never learned at all) by modern generations.

Watching "Nosferatu" in the twenty-first century, what stands out is director F.W. Murnau's keen filmmaking sense. Special effects to represent the sun rising, or doors opening by themselves, are simplistic but savvy, and his back-and-forth cutting between places and characters far apart from each other within the same scene is ahead of its time. Murnau also intriguingly suggests how paranoia can overtake a population of people—the residents of Wisborg mistake a plague for Orlok's murderous vampiric power over them—and further clearly articulates the fight between the pure and tainted halves of one's human nature. His stark yet inevitable climax, wherein Count Orlok's hunched body and long, twig-like fingers are personified by the shadows of him walking up a staircase and reaching for a doorknob to claim his latest victim, remains indelible and disquieting.

Mentioning Max Schreck's unforgettable portrayal of Count Orlok deserves to be the final word on "Nosferatu." Whereas vampires usually are viewed as seductive, dangerous creatures whose sexuality goes hand-in-hand with their need for blood, Orlok is just as grotesque on the outside as he is on the inside. That his insatiable hunger prevails despite his off-putting demeanor lends the film an added macabre touch missing from future vampire stories. Schreck doesn't so much play the character as he seemingly becomes him. It is because of him, above all else, that ensures "Nosferatu" will live on in the annals of horror's history forever.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman