by RISHI AGRAWAL
A couple weeks ago, I saw a special on The History Channel about Vlad the Impaler. Every time the subject of vampirism would come up, the show would cut to scenes from Nosferatu. I suspect that part of the reason for this is that Nosferatu has likely fallen into the public domain. But I think the images were also used because they presented such a convincing and creepy vision which was so pervasive that no sound was necessary.
Nosferatu had a rocky start before becoming a part of film history. F.W. Murnau wanted to film Dracula, the Bram Stoker novel. Unfortunately, Murnau could not afford to pay for the rights, so he simply changed the names of the characters and some of the details and made the film without permission. Stoker’s widow was enraged by this and was determined to destroy every extant copy of Nosferatu. Fortunately, for cinephiles everywhere, she did not succeed.
The plot should be familiar to anyone who has seen Dracula. The setting was changed to Germany during the time of the black plague, but the story remains the same. A simpleton named Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is sent by his boss Knock (Alexander Granach) to sell an abandoned house to the mysterious Count Orlok (Max Shreck). The locals fear the name Orlok and Hutter soon finds that Orlok has an unusual fascination with blood. You can probably guess what happens next.
There are two things that really stand out in the film: the visual style and the performance of Shreck. Murnau was a master of technique, but combined his technique with an unparalleled sense of artistry. Unlike Griffith, who would often use innovations in film in order to show off, Murnau was more restrained. If the film called for intercutting or fast motion, Murnau would use it but he would not simply use a technique just because he could. When Hutter first goes to meet Orlok, he is greeted by a sinister coach. Murnau played up this scene by having the coach move at an almost supernatural pace. In the scene, Murnau used negative images to reverse black and white in the frames, giving a unnatural feel to familiar settings. In another scene, Orlok rises from a coffin almost as if he is being pulled by a lever.
What is stunning about Murnau’s achievement is that he was influenced by both filmmakers who took a more naturalistic approach and the German expressionist movement. He put together a film that is rich with dark shadows and impending doom, but has enough basis in reality that we can relate to the story.
As for Shreck’s performance, he slinks across the screen almost like a rodent. He is an ugly and abhorrent creature, but we cannot take our eyes off of him. He is certainly a sharp contrast to the suave and slick renditions of Dracula that we later see. But Orlok is deformed, as if he is consumed by his disease.
I think what really struck me about this film is that, unquestionably, this film works better as a silent film than one with sound. I think that Griffith’s films certainly would have worked as talkies, but Murnau knows that what will draw us into the story is not the words or title cards, but the images on the screen.