And here my 31 days of scary movies begin! This first post, aptly enough, is about Nosferatu. The original F.W. Murnau one, not the 1979 Herzog version. Just so you’re not confused.
While I’ve seen a few German Expressionist films before, this was actually my first time watching Nosferatu. And Faust, which I mention briefly at the end. I really liked them both! They’re wonderful, beautifully crafted films. I highly recommend them! With an exclamation point even!
This weekend I think I’ll be focusing on the Italians. Started off last night with two of Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy: Suspiria (and old favorite) and Inferno (which I had somehow managed to not see before). Today I might watch Opera. Or maybe some Mario Bava. We’ll see!
But for now, here’s the first movie in my 31 days: Nosferatu. Enjoy.
Oh, and guys, this movie came out in 1922 and is based on Dracula. I’m not worrying about spoilers.
Nosferatu – Germany, 1922. Dir. FW Murnau. Starring Max Screcht, Greta Schroder, and Gustav von Wagenheim.
Is it possible for me to write about vampire movies and ignore Twilight? Completely? Other than this one paragraph? Because I HATE all things Twilight and I will not take that back. I just don’t want to talk about it, it makes me cranky. I am going to go pout now.
I am unashamedly old school in my preferences for vampires. I want them dark, mysterious, dangerous. They can be seductive but ultimately they should be frightening. What is it about the vampire that is so attractive? Is it the bad boy thing? They’re powerful, they can be alluring. And let’s be honest, when they kill you it’s all about penetration.
The horror of the vampire comes from the complete control it has over its victim, from the sense that to fall prey to a vampire is in essence to fall from grace; the fear of the vampire is the fear of sexuality and it is the fear of death.
Nosferatu isn’t scary in the way that modern horror films are scary. There is nothing jumping out of the shadows, shocking you to a scream. Instead the shadows slink across the walls, villagers stare in silence, and the vampire slowly rises from the coffin; a creature you can run from but cannot escape. Max Schrecht’s Count Orlok is not sexy. Not in the least. He’s more rodent than human. He is not Gary Oldman.
AND NOSFERATU IS FREAKY.
The tension builds right from the outset. We know this is the story of Dracula, even if the names have been changed to Count Orlok, Hutter, Ellen, etc. We start off with some good old fashioned foreshadowing. Ellen laments that her husband has killed the beautiful flowers, the Doctor warns that Hutter cannot escape his destiny, Knock refers to Transylvania as the land of ghosts and death. Even in Hutter’s excitement, his Ellen feels the sense of impending doom. She knows that death is coming.
What Nosferatu lacks in the modern conventions of the horror film, it makes up for in style. It is possibly one of the more well known examples of German Expressionist films of Weimar Germany. Visually, we float through the story in a state of dreamlike terror. Murnau contrasts the naturalistic exteriors with the off center framing, elongated shadows, and confined spaces trapping our characters as they confront their nightmares.
One of my favorite things in the film is how Murnau cuts from Hutter to Orlok to Ellen as they all head towards their inevitable destinies. Orlok travels the sea, terrorizing the ship’s crew in some of the most memorable moments of the film; Hutter races across land, desperate to reach his Ellen; and poor Ellen sits alone on the melancholy windswept stretch of beach, waiting for any word of Hutter and knowing that something evil is on its way.
And once Orlok arrives, death quickly follows. The captain’s log threatens a plague and soon enough coffins fill the streets. The villagers stone Knock as a scapegoat. Orlok stalks the innocent Ellen. The moment Ellen learns what must be done to stop the vampire is the moment when the difference between this early version of Dracula and the later versions differ. In Francis Ford Coppola’s version, Gary Oldman is seductive, the audience wants Winona Ryder to succumb to him. The revelation of his back story makes him empathetic in a way, it makes him human. Orlok on the other hand is as far from human as he could be. Ellen is not giving in to temptation, she is offering herself as sacrifice. We pity her and we fear for her. The element of seduction is absent and as a result the terror of Ellen’s decision is raw; her sacrifice is real.
It’s a moment from another time. (It’s sexual but it’s not sexy)
Nosferatu is frightening but it’s maybe not scary. Today, we’re so savvy and jaded. We know the tricks of the genre and our awareness allows us to laugh knowingly at the moments that have over the years become cliche.
For the modern audience, Nosferatu will not be the same experience as it was for the audiences of the 1920’s. How many times have we seen Dracula? Or Fright Night? Or, god forbid, Twilight? We know vampires but even more than that, we know the vampire movie. The mythology is a part of our collective conscious. That being said, the imagery is haunting and the rising figure of Nosferatu is still able to evoke that moment of terror, that pull in our gut as we watch death rising from its grave to take us all at a whim. It’s not just nostalgia for a more innocent time, it’s still a terror rooted in the moment. Death is always relevant.
Watching Nosferatu on my computer, through Netflix streaming, I was actually really sad to not have the theater experience with live music. It’s one of my absolute favorite ways to watch silent films.
Nosferatu is a film that should be watched in the dark.
I’m not going to write a full post on another F.W. Murnau film, Faust, but I did watch this one as well. If you have an interest in German Expressionist cinema or silent films or watch Nosferatu and enjoy it, you should definitely watch Faust as well. It’s a wonderfully crafted film and I really enjoyed it. Visual poetry to be a little corny for a second. Murnau is one of the great filmmakers from the silent era and moving out of the horror genre for a second, I also have to recommend his film Sunrise. Check them out if you have the chance, especially if you ever have the opportunity to see them in a theater. They’re well worth it.
A couple of Roger Ebert reviews if you’re not tired of reading: