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Thursday, April 17, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Nosferatu (1922)

Director: F.W. Murnau
Starring: Max Schreck, Greta Shroeder, Gustav von Wagenheim

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror isn’t an especially scary film, but it is a particularly haunting one. Directed by the brilliant F.W. Murnau, this is a horror film less concerned with gore and creatures jumping out from their hiding places, and more concerned with creating an atmosphere of terror and anxiety. Max Schreck’s performance as the vampire, Count Orlock, creates one of the most lasting impressions ever made on screen and adds immensely to the sinister genius of the film.

Nosferatu is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but the names of the characters were changed in an attempt to avoid a lawsuit by Stoker’s widow - which didn’t work and her victory in court almost resulted in the film being lost forever. In the film, the protagonist, Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), is summoned to the dwelling (“home” is too warm a word for so dark a place) of Count Orlock. The mere mention of Orlock’s name is enough to cause dread in the hearts of the people who reside in the village below the manor, but Hutter carries on regardless. Orlock emerges from the darkness to greet Hutter and invites him to sit down to dinner. During the course of the meal, Hutter cuts himself (“Your precious blood!” Orlock exclaims) and Orlock looks lustily at Hutter’s wound, then sees Hutter’s picture of his wife, Ellen (Greta Shroeder), and transfers his lust to her (“What a lovely throat…”). His growing determination to have her will ultimately lead to his destruction.

Part of the reason why Nosferatu works is that it’s a very economical adaptation. Murnau and writer Henrik Galeen knew how to focus the story for maximum effect and cut out the parts of Stoker’s novel that aren’t really necessary for this kind of story, things like Stoker’s fascination with emerging technologies (incidentally, if you want to see a Dracula adaptation that fully embraces all the quirks and asides of the novel, I recommend Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which may not be the “best” vampire film ever, but is a guilty pleasure movie if ever there was one). Another reason is the underlying sexual aspect to the terror. The most obvious sexual connotation of this film (and other vampire films) is that the menace comes in the form of an exchange of bodily fluid, and that the terror reaches its peak when the menace comes to visit a woman while she’s in bed. The anxiety that runs through this film isn’t an anxiety about death but about sex, specifically about the connection of sex to women. It’s interesting that vampire films begin here with sexual threat framed clearly as something monstrous, a “creature” who inspires revulsion from those around him, and evolve over time (beginning with Tod Browning’s Dracula) into the trope of the “seductive” vampire, to whom victims succumb almost willingly. There is nothing seductive about Orlock. He appears terrifying and inhuman – a assemblage of ugliness almost beyond imagining.

Murnau is a master of tone and style, creating here a film that is hypnotic in the way that it unfolds. The first sighting of Orlock is especially memorable and enduring, as he emerges from the darkness looking ghoulish and alien – the level of creepiness established here would have been enough to carry the film to its conclusion even if the story didn't take us into Orlock's mansion. According to IMDB, Orlock only appears in about nine of the film’s ninety or so minutes, which is startling when you consider how deeply his presence seems engrained in the film from beginning to end. It’s a credit not only to Schreck’s acting, but also to Murnau’s direction that the character is able to loom so large over the film, becoming larger than the narrative itself. By confining the character, limiting his space within the film, Murnau gives him license to run loose in our imaginations (off the top of my head I can think of two other big screen terrors whose limited time in the film has the same effect: the shark in Jaws and Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs).

Nosferatu is a film that can be watched today without seeming dated because it exists so firmly in the realm of fantasy. It floats before us like a nightmare, touching on our deepest fears and twisting them into shapes all the more frightening for their unfamiliarity. This is a definite must see for anyone who loves movies.

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