It’s unfathomable to think a 90-year old film can maintain the same level of terror as it did upon release, but F.W. Murnau‘s Nosferatu is just such a movie. From Max Schreck‘s unsettling visage as Count Orlock, to the movie’s tone which is so oppressive the viewer can taste their fear; Nosferatu continues to unseat its audience to this day. Kino gives the Blu-ray treatment to another classic, and their two-disc tribute to Murnau’s work is a necessary purchase, just don’t be surprised if you end up sleeping with the lights on.
Young Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is tasked with helping the mysterious Count Orlock (Schreck) purchase a house. Unfortunately for Hutter, Orlock is a vampire intent on getting back to the mainland and feasting on victims, including Hutter’s beloved Ellen (Greta Schroder).
It’s said F.W. Murnau was unable to get the rights to Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, of which this is an adaptation albeit without using Stoker’s characters names. The basic premise of Stoker’s immortal tale is presented on-screen: Hutter, our stand-in Jonathan Harker, goes to visit Count Orlock nee Dracula, who falls for Hutter’s wife Ellen, aka Mina. Murnau’s claim to fame is adhering to the original intentions of Stoker’s novel. Orlock isn’t a lovelorn wanderer who finds in Mina a representation of his beloved, a trope common in Stoker interpretation. The makeup work on Max Schreck remains iconic and utterly frightening because he is a living bat/human hybrid; the misshapen head, large eyes, pointy ears, and small protruding teeth are indelible to what a vampire truly is. There’s nothing dreamy or swoon-worthy with this guy.
In addition to Schreck’s performance, the effects are cutting edge for 1922. The way Orlock rises from his coffin and other elements of stop-motion are rendered almost seamlessly; again, this is 1922 after all. I’ve always found silent films to exude their own brand of foreboding, even if it’s a comedy or romance. There’s something about the St. Vitus dance and exaggerated facial expressions which always came off macabre to me. Nosferatu is a perfect example of why I’m leery about silent films. Even the sequences between Hutter and Ellen give off a portentous tone; maybe it’s the makeup, enhancing the dark circles around characters eyes and lips.
Dialogue ruins the best silent films, and Nosferatu is one of them. There’s nothing in the story or acting that dialogue would improve upon. The actors facial work, particularly Schreck, convey all the grotesque aspects necessary to root for Hutter to triumph over Orlock’s demonic evil. Murnau does have a tendency to drink in long shots of objects which can make the 95-minute runtime excessive.
Kino is at the forefront of silent film restoration, and their work on this and The Blue Angel is proof of the work they do to present these 90-year-old movies in all their glory. The picture is sharp and the orchestration plays beautifully. The two-discs present both English and German intertitles, and for this review I’m looking at the English copy although I’ve been told the German version is clearer. The movie begins with a lengthy description of the restoration process and which prints were utilized, which I’m wondering is indicative of the different colors in each scene? I could be off-based on that one. The bonus content includes an epic 52-minute retrospective on Murnau entitled “The Language of Shadows.” The focus is on Nosferatu but there’s enough here to fascinate even the casual fan of Murnau’s work. There’s also excerpts, running five to ten-minutes, from five other Murnau shorts which all have an equally unsettling sensibility. Additionally, there’s a short teaser trailer promoting the Blu-ray and an image gallery.
Vampires haven’t always had highly coiffed hair and pouty lips. F.W. Murnau is uncompromising in his vampire tale, presenting bloodsuckers for who they really are. If you want a serious vampire movie, causing you to have nightmares for the next month, check out Kino’s exquisite transfer of this movie. The movie is 91-years-old, but it plays as if it was released yesterday. And if you’re in the mood for a different take on this, watch the crazy Shadow of the Vampire which theorizes Schreck really was a vampire. Fingers crossed that isn’t true.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.