Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schroder, Alexander Granach
Director: F.W. Murnau
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is less than ten years away from officially becoming an antique, yet it remains an odd, unsettling presence in the canon of world cinema. It started life in a disreputable manner, as an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (earning the fury of Stoker’s widow) and various legends have grown up around it, especially to do with its startling villain, played by the enigmatic Max Schreck – and so it has lived on, often in the shadows, but always lurking in the cultural bloodstream.
The film keeps to the broad outline of the novel and also imitates its polyphonic construction by employing on-screen glimpses of journals, ship’s logs and letters in addition to conventional intertitles. But what’s really interesting are the alterations Murnau made in hopes of avoiding litigation. The most famous of these, of course, is the substitution of the magnetic, darkly romantic Dracula for the frankly repulsive Count Orlok, with his bug eyes, rat teeth and corpse-like stiffness. There are, however, others that are just as intriguing. To begin with, Murnau shifts the action from late Victorian England with its typewriters and wax cylinder phonographs to a Brothers Grimm-style 1830s Germany of blood flow-constricting tailcoats and drainpipe-thin leggings. And then there are the strangely ineffectual male characters. Instead of the lusty vampire killer Van Helsing we get Professor Bulwer, who knows all about Venus flytraps but who contributes precisely nothing to solving the crisis as Orlock makes landfall after spreading his mysterious plague across the Black Sea. In the end, it is female resolve and self-sacrifice which puts paid to the deadly peril.
All of these changes are essential to the film’s two most striking attributes, its folkloric quality and its air of waking nightmare, which in turn are only made stronger by the technical limitations of 1920s silent film-making. Just look at Orlok gliding slowly but unstoppably towards the heroine, Ellen, a sudden stutter in the picture – the film jumping forward a couple of frames – uncannily heightening the dramatic impact: accident throwing up the sort of eerie effect that a modern director would employ CG wizardry to replicate.
This masterly vampire flick is now more accessible than ever, with Blu-ray releases from Masters of Cinema last year and now this one from the BFI. The USP of this particular release is that it contains a meatily dramatic orchestral score by James Bernard (of Hammer fame) which will appeal greatly to horror fans. As one character comments, “Travel quickly, my friend, into the land of the spectres.” 10/10
This transfer retains a fair amount of the wear and tear which is now so much a part of the film’s character, but it also has plenty of sharpness, enabling the viewer to appreciate Murnau’s willingness to experiment (with devices such as colour tinting, stop motion animation and even, in one case, presenting a scene in negative) as well as his eye for the grotesque – the corrupt land agent Knock hunched over his desk like a beetle, the carriage with shrouded horses that takes the hero, Hutter, to Orlok’s castle, and the decrepit slum from which Orlok ventures out to wreak havoc in the latter stages of the film. 8/10
This BFI Blu-ray comes with a rather slimmer bundle of extras than the Masters of Cinemas release, but what it does have is well-known pundit Christopher Frayling talking eloquently for 24 minutes about the film’s production and enduring appeal. He looks at the way the film diverges from the novel and says some interesting things about Murnau’s handwritten annotations to the original script. Also: The Vampire, 8-min natural history short. ~ The Mistletoe Bough, 8 min short from 1904, attractively restored. 7/10