“Does this word not sound like the deathbird calling your name at midnight?”
Every copy of F.W. Murnau‘s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens [Nosferatu] should have been destroyed. It was with good reason too considering the German based production house Prana hired Henrik Galeen to “loosely” adapt Bram Stoker‘s Dracula without permission. The estate sued and eventually won, pushing the studio into bankruptcy and the prints to destruction. Luckily for us some survived—two other early adaptations, one Soviet and the other Hungarian, did not. It’s insane to think that Max Schreck‘s iconic Count Orlok rearing up with long nails extended could have been lost. The shadowy visage of his demonic vampire would have been erased, the numerous works of art created in its mold never born. It makes you wonder what other potentially great films might have also been expunged.
Galeen’s expressionistic interpretation centers on the port town of Wisborg, an unassuming locale not yet touched by the Black Death. His script became both a vehicle to provide audiences scares with a supernatural creature and the very real threat of plague. So it contains both metaphor and fantasy, a villainous scourge that consumes the blood of those he meets and carries with him disease and despair thanks to coffins of cursed dirt and the infected rats burrowing within. There’s an occult book beckoning innocents to read and help unleash its evil and a loyal disciple readying the path towards fertile land. After all, Wisborg would have remained safe if not for infamous real estate broker Knock (Alexander Granach). But his master called and he responded in kind.
He sends his top employee Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) to Transylvania to bring with him the contracts for Count Orlok to sign. This prospective client seeks new accommodations in Europe and where’s better than the vacant building across from the ambitious Hutter’s home? So the agent leaves his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) at a friend’s, bids them all goodbye, and sets off for the distant country. Those who live in the surrounding area look upon his request to visit the Count with fear, those willing to take him unable to go farther than the ridgeline directly below his residence. Hutter must go on foot the rest of the way before he’s picked up by a stranger’s carriage. This stranger inevitably proves to be Orlok himself.
Separated into five Acts, Nosferatu shows itself to be much more than a one-note horror film. I anticipated Schreck having ample screen time to menace townspeople everywhere he turns, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. His Orlok is in fact absent for over half the runtime, oftentimes lying in wait until someone invites him into his/her life. Instead we focus on Hutter and the tragic realization of what he has unleashed. What begins comically in the belief that he’s merely experiencing visions turns into terror, his nightmare becoming reality. The accidental drop of his wife’s photo piques Orlok’s interest, the two “mosquito bites” on his neck can no longer be ignored, and the knowledge everyone he loves is in immediate danger takes hold.
The film becomes a race as Orlok stows away on a ship—its crew dying off from the plague seeping onto the bridge—and Hutter rides across rough terrain. The logistics of this prove asinine (not only does Hutter need time recovering from a fall before he can set out, but the ship is supposedly “moving at impossible speed”), but it’s hardly a premise beholden to physics so we can give it the benefit of the doubt. It’s not like wives feel their husbands’ pain thousands of miles away either. Murnau is filming with a lyricism that carries more weight emotionally than intellectually. We marvel at Orlok’s strength and telekinetic abilities (some nice early stop-motion effects doing the trick) and fear the demise of our hero.
At 90-minutes things should be streamlined, but there are nonetheless definitely more than a few lulls. The plague subplot carries on longer than necessary and a witch-hunt for the criminally insane Knock spends way too much time distracting from what’s important. I can see these things playing well a century ago upon release, but it’s tough to invest in that which doesn’t directly affect the vampire. Nosferatu is best when Schreck is onscreen because Murnau shoots him in memorably interesting and foreboding ways. I enjoy the idea that no one besides Hutter and Ellen know it’s Orlok wreaking havoc, but I’m unsure we need to continue being reminded about what everyone else believes is happening. We don’t really need to care about them at all.
In this respect the film plays better as a mood piece wherein Schreck can be seen in stock-still malice. I leaned forward watching him in his window from a huge distance or seeing him in the shadowy foreground with fangs in a victim’s neck, tiny in one corner as the darkened room fills the rest of the frame. It’s his interaction with the world that conjures true fear and suspense, his silhouette creeping up a stairway or his impossibly stiff springboard movement from laying down to standing up. The stuff with Knock, the ill-fated ship’s crew, and the townsfolk fearing disease simply lacks that same impact. My frustration grew every time we shifted to the human suffering in Orlok’s wake instead of those in his clutches.
There’s an over-arching narrative outside of Hutter and Ellen, though, so there does need to be a plot concerning Orlok’s move from Transylvania to Germany and the collateral damage the journey creates. I wonder if it could have unfolded alongside the supernatural aspects rather than be so clearly segmented from them. Act One’s exposition is necessary to set-up Hutter’s motivations for going and returning. Act Two is a delight in its entertaining introduction of Orlok. But besides a handful of moments, Act Three and Four are more bloat than anything else. We’ve already met the Count by then so notions of subtlety and deflection are misguided. We wade through them until Act Five’s perfectly bittersweet climax with many images that will sear into your brain.
Nosferatu is therefore a crucial piece of cinematic history even if its construction leaves a bit to be desired. It’s unforgettable when it works and those are the moments that have allowed it to stand the test of time as the most iconic and influential Dracula adaptation in existence despite the fact it never should have survived. It’s also the film that bolstered its director’s status as an artist of note, Murnau’s masterpieces like Faust and Sunrise occurring a few years later before his untimely demise. In 1922 his work here helped propel the ambition of the medium and cement film as a visual storytelling mainstay beyond text. Schreck’s Orlok brought a nightmare to life and we’ve yet to forget him close to one hundred years later.