Rating -

Horror (Germany); 1922; Not Rated; 81 Minutes

Gustav Botz: Dr. Sievers
John Gottowt: Professor Bulwer
Wolfgang Heinz: Maat
Guido Herzfeld: Wirt
Ruth Landshoff: Lucy Westrenka
Max Nemetz: Kapitän
Georg H. Schnell: Westrenka
Max Schreck: Count Orlok
Greta Schröder: Ellen Hutter

Produced by Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau; Directed by F.W. Murnau; Screenwritten by Henrik Galeen; based on the novel "Dracula" by Bram Stoker

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Written by DAVID KEYES

Of all the memorable, haunting images that graced the screen during the silent film era, none have quite had the staggering power as the vision of Max Schreck in the role of Count Orlok in "Nosferatu." It's easy for an actor to occupy the screen with bizarre facial expressions, but Schreck has the type of presence here that matches with the silent performances of Lon Chaney. He embodies the aspects of the blood-hungry character that make him both surreal and hypnotic--expressions that aren't overdone, makeup that adds emphasis to the most eerie qualities of the face, and body movements that we associate with the living dead. No, this isn't a man who is playing a character, but one who is living it.

I have great appreciation for silent movies done in the ambiance of genuine horror. This was an era in which gazing at something eerie or truly terrifying was not accompanied by someone screaming their heads off. Sights that deeply disturb people are not always followed by a loud shriek--real horror silences us, because we are to scared to make any immediate reaction. F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu," probably the greatest Dracula interpretation ever made, embraces that fact with a vengeance--here is a rendition where characters are not obliged to vocally react to the site of their death coming in. The fear that generates in their eyes is the most haunting of all, and by far the most effective. Other silent horror films, such as "The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari" and "Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde," remain terrifying, while the modern scream-fests like "Halloween" and "Friday The 13th" easily fade from our minds.

And just as the image of this vampire remains shocking, so does the photography. Director F.W. Murnau, one of the first directors to incorporate actual scenery into the movies, takes the famed "Dracula" story to the midst of the foreboding Carpathian mountains, in which rocks sculpt their own menacing shapes, and the shadows cause fear when the characters step into them. Most silent endeavors (with the brief exceptions of "Intolerance," "Birth Of A Nation" and "The Battleship Potempkin") relied on sets to carry the actors into a landscape. This is a movie shot on location, and the areas that are incorporated have such an etching effect on the story that, when the film was remade in 1979 as "Nosferatu The Vampyre" by Werner Herzog, some of the same locations were used. Because of this awe-inspiring, gothic and realistic look, Murnau promised to be one of the great cinema directors when the sound era arrived. Sadly, his career was cut short tby a fatal accident, only a brief time after signing a movie deal in North America.

In the story, Schreck's Count Orlok is visited by Hutter, a real estate agent who has come to close a deal for property being purchased in Isaborg, Germany (although the original story specified London). During the journey through the mountains up to the eccentric Count's abode, this Hutter witnesses sights of unspeakable strangeness--shapes, noises, a carriage of Phantoms, a castle showing its eerie age, and (of course) the count himself. On his journey, though, the bridge which divides the hills and the land of the Phantoms is the point in which we pay tremendous interest. One reason might be the use of a camera shot in negative--when the carriage picks him up to take him to the castle, a few frames are reversed in shades, and a sense of dread builds. The sight of the vampire himself only helps provoke it, especially during the close-ups, in which the camera captures distinctive shots of large eyebrows and catlike eyeballs, staring at his prey with determination and, in some ways, sadness.

The next day, after his arrival, Hutter writes a letter to his love, Ellen. He makes note of two marks on his neck, which have seemingly appeared while he was asleep (although he believes they are mosquito bites). Of course, the marks are from the vampire, but not in the way you might expect. The generic image we see of Dracula shows two fangs on each side of the four front upper teeth. In the "Nosferatu" version, the count's fangs are centered.

The movie's legend is known to every cinema historian. Despite its close adaptation of the immortal "Dracula" novel, the film was never actually authorized by Stoker's widow, at that time the only person who could license or disapprove of her husband's work being used for other projects. She immediately sought out help from the BISA (British Incorporated Society of Authors), but her efforts did not go very far (at first). The production company for "Nosferatu," Prana-Film, filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter.

But the movie managed to break free from limbo in Budapest, Hungary. Such a surfacing only inflamed Stoker's widow with anger, and after the owner of the film refused to turn over some of the profit to her, courts ordered all the existing prints to be immediately destroyed. At the time, the film was thought to have died with the silent era. But like "The Passion Of Joan Of Arc," another obscure classic with an uncertain future, a print managed to show up years later. Movies that endure this much heartache resurface because they were meant to be seen, and "Nosferatu" has assuredly stood the test of time.

When it comes to vampire stories, "Nosferatu" is one of the great achievements of the cinema--something incomparable by the other bloodsucker classics, like the Francis Ford Coppola version of "Bram Stoker's Dracula," and Carl Dreyer's near-silent sound picture "Vampyr." Murnau's is an achievement that reminds us that the simple, structured approaches towards the legend of Dracula are the ones that really terrify--not those in which the vampires dress up in capes, have shoe polish in their hair, and show off their fangs more often than they use them to bite a neck.

© 1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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