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To watch F.W. Murnau's ``Nosferatu'' (1922) is to see the vampire movie before it had really seen itself. Here is the story of Dracula before it was buried alive in cliches, jokes, TV skits, cartoons and more than 30 other films. The film is in awe of its material. It seems to really believe in vampires.
Max Schreck, who plays the vampire, avoids most of the theatrical touches that would distract from all the later performances, from Bela Lugosi to Christopher Lee to Frank Langella to Gary Oldman. The vampire should come across not like a flamboyant actor but like a man suffering from a dread curse. Schreck plays the count more like an animal than a human being; the art direction by Murnau's collaborator, Albin Grau, gives him bat ears, clawlike nails and fangs that are in the middle of his mouth like a rodent's, instead of on the sides like on a Halloween mask.
Murnau's silent film was based on the Bram Stoker novel, but the title and character names were changed because Stoker's widow charged, not unreasonably, that her husband's estate was being ripped off. Ironically, in the long run Murnau was the making of Stoker, because ``Nosferatu'' inspired dozens of other Dracula films, none of them as artistic or unforgettable, although Werner Herzog's 1979 version with Klaus Kinski comes closest.
``Nosferatu'' is a better title, anyway, than ``Dracula.'' Say ``Dracula'' and you smile. Say ``Nosferatu'' and you've eaten a lemon. Murnau's story begins in Bremen, Germany. Knock (Alexander Granach), a simian little real estate agent, assigns his employee Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) to visit the remote castle of Count Orlok, who wishes to buy a house in town--"a deserted one." A clue to the story can be found in Orlok's letter, which we see over Knock's shoulder. It is written in occult symbols; since Knock can read it, we should not be surprised later when he calls Orlok ``Master.'' During Hutter's trip to Orlok's lair in the Carpathian Mountains, Murnau's images foretell doom. In an inn, all of the customers fall silent when Hutter mentions Orlok's name. Outside, horses bolt and run, and a hyena snarls before slinking away. At Hutter's bedside, he finds a book that explains vampire lore: They must sleep, he learns, in earth from the graveyards of the Black Death.
Hutter's hired coach refuses to take him onto Orlok's estate. The count sends his own coach, which travels in fast-motion, as does his servant, who scurries like a rat. Hutter is still laughing at warnings of vampirism, but his laugh fades at dinner, when he cuts himself with a bread knife and the count seems unhealthily interested in ``Blood--your beautiful blood!'' --CantBeDone.org
NOSFERATU Starring Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim and Greta Schroeder VARIETY December 25, 1929
Skillfully mounted and directed, this symbolical legendary cinema story of reanimated ghosts in a period set about a century or so ago when vampirism was pretty well entrenched in the world's beliefs, is a depressive piece of art made even more incompatible for bourgeois theatre fare because of misspotted and poor titling. Latter lends the film more than one confusing moment and therefore it is a risky exhibit for the sure seaters, too although the artistic quality of settings and direction command consideration, this and Murnau's work leaving the question open whether this film was made long ago or lately.
Story is claimed to have been inspired by "Dracula." Whether the play or the book not told. Bram Stoker authored the novel more than 20 years ago and the play which was based on it, written by Hamilton Dean and John Balderson, produced on Broadway by Horace Liveright in October, 1927.
Like the play the picture is a shivery melo spilling ghostlike impossibilities from beginning to end. Action details the forages of a nobleman who is dead yet alive, making night time raids on human beings and compelling them to become subservient to him by sucking the blood from their necks, often plaguing them to death. His especial delight is a pretty woman.
Murnau proved his directorial artistry in "Sunrise" for Fox about three years ago, but in this picture he's a master artisan demonstrating not only a knowledge of the subtler side of directing but in photography.
One shot of the sun cracking at dawn is an eye filler. Among others of extremely imaginative beauty is one which takes in a schooner sailing in a rippling stream photographed in such a manner that it has the illusion of color and an enigmatic weirdness that's more perplexing than the ghost action of the players.
His funeral scene in the deserted town street where the bodies of the plague victims are carried in coffins held aloft by straggling pallbearers is unusual to say the least. Empty shattering buildings photographed to suggest the desperate desolation brought on by the vampire is extremely effective symbolism.
Max Schreck as the vampire is an able pantomimist and works clocklike, his makeup suggesting everything that's goose pimply. He did his worst on every occasion which was good. --SilentsAreGolden.comSee all Editorial Reviews
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The director was sued for copyright by Bram Stoker's widow and most copies of the film were destroyed. Thankfully, enough survived intact so that we can view it today. The basic storyline from Stoker is intact, but there are a few changes that make this film worth viewing. For example, the time frame is set in the year 1838, rather than 1890 as in the Stoker novel. The Harkers live in Bremen Germany, rather than England.
In this film, the vampire does not have any wives which could have been effective. The rats that accompanied Nosferatu played a larger part in this film than in others, including a bit of low comedy when a warehouse worker is bitten on the foot. A rotund Reinfield capers about in a cartoonish manner,leering and sneering but this makes him seem all the MORE demented. The obligatory ride to the castle is RAPID to say the least, almost a "Keystone Kop" pace which makes it unintentionally funny. One sequence was done in an almost "X-ray" effect which could have been used more often. But the most eerie effect is Nosferatu's appearance. Lean and bald, with a mishapen skull and a lurching walk. His hands look like claws and his rat-like ears, a hooked nose, hollow eyes and sunken cheeks make a real impact. When he rises from his coffin, he's as rigid as a board. Unfortunatly, Harker comes across as a scatterbrained oaf and is totally useless in protecting Nina (Yes they changed her name)from the vampire. One scene in the castle has Harker childishly pulling a sheet over his head to protect himself from the approaching vampire. I was also disappointed by the limited part played by Van Helsing, Lucy Westerna and Jack Seward. Still, this tape is well worth having.The edition I bought came from Republic Studios and it has a HORRIBLE SOUNDTRACK. I MUTE IT.
For the more serious enthusiast, the 1-hour documentary on F.W. Murnau which focuses on the making of "Nosferatu" is particularly interesting as it carefully traces the steps taken by Murnau and his crew, going to the various locations where filming took place. I was surprised and fascinated to see that many buildings and even the eerie castle seen in the film still exist today, some hardly changed in 85 years. And for the real purists or Germans, the second disc in this set has all the original German intertitles to give us a good idea of how German audiences first experienced "Nosferatu" at its release in 1922. With all this additional background information, as well as interesting stills and artwork for the film and excerpts from other Murnau films, this set is invaluable for not only silent film collectors, but also for fans of the horror genre and Dracula and vampire stories in particular.