Thoughts On: “Nosferatu”

Why do we hold such reverence for Nosferatu? Why does a film with such simple special effects and occasionally humorous acting linger in our minds? Why, when Hollywood offers a wealth of svelte–even sexy–vampires, do we keep turning to the gaunt, bushy eyebrowed Count Orlok with his protruding rat teeth?

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It must be more than simple curiosity to see one of our earliest vampire films, although that’s probably a big factor for many. According to some of my non-silents-accustomed friends, its style and film speed can make it effectively creepy. That said, I’ll admit that plenty of people find it hysterical. (The great Silent Volume blog recounts a particularly dismal experience at a packed theater.) Not being used to the acting style or the undercranking effects, they can’t understand what’s so “scary” about it
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And yet, they’ll turn up to a showing in droves. Something about Nosferatu still resonates.

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It’s really the audience’s expectations that have changed, not the film. Decades of horror trope conditioning have made us equate “people getting killed by a highly visible monster = scary,” or “gross = scary.” We seem to demand explanations and origin stories for everything. I once saw a review of The Haunting (1963), one of the most frightening and masterful psychological films ever made, that complained it didn’t show any ghosts. (Oh my friends, if only I were making that up.)

Nosferatu doesn’t have any grand origin stories–it makes some comparison of the vampire with other carnivorous creatures, but that’s as far as it goes. Its Gothic atmosphere is straightforward, undiluted by extraneous characters or self-conscious subtexts. My beloved Roger Ebert said, with his customary wisdom: “Here is the story of Dracula before it was buried alive in clichés, 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.”

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It is also the story of Dracula before being buried in an avalanche of academic analysis, much of which was written in the ’70s. Bram Stoker’s novel has been practically torn to pieces with conflicting, often ludicrous theories positing everything from incest to fear of female sexuality to psychobabble like the theory of “the oral triad”: “the desire to eat, to be eaten, and to sleep” (just think, that guy is probably tenured). The running theme is that it simply must be all about sex, every jot of it, whether Stoker intended it to be or not (and he certainly didn’t).

To watch Nosferatu means we must clear our minds of all these cultural cobwebs, and regard it with fresh eyes–receptive eyes. What shall we find, then?

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Certainly something like what F.W. Murnau saw in Stoker’s novel–something more in the line of the obviously supernatural than psychological theories. It does anchor itself solidly in real life at first. Our protagonist Jonathan Hutter is played by Gustav von Wangenheim, who, with his baby-ish face and awkward habit of laughing a little too long, comes across as kind of a doofus. (This is usually where an audience would start chuckling.) He hears spooky stories about his destination but doesn’t take them seriously, joking to his wife Ellen, “I am going to travel far away to the land of thieves and ghosts.”

Von Wangenheim’s easy to mock, but it’s just as easy to overlook how effective he is when he begins to grow uneasy around the bizarre Count Orlok. When a character that cheerful and naive gets frightened, you start to think it must be for a good reason.

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There’s a prophetic shot when Hutter first meets the Count, and the vampire, in the foreground, is framed by an archway in the background. Hutter enters the archway, and for a moment there’s a subtle illusion of the predatory Count looming over his prey.

And what a strange predator Max Schreck’s Count is–a unique, monstrous creature indebted mainly to Stoker’s novel, and partly to Murnau’s imagination. He has fangs like the rodents he unleashes on Hutter’s village. His posture, with the tight shoulders and the arms held stiff at his sides, suggest a body accustomed to the rigid confines of a slightly-small coffin. Schreck dissolves into the role, and indeed, it’s hard to imagine him in anything else.

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We’re all familiar (or at least should be) with the plot–the Count’s arrival in Hutter’s town, the pestilence he brings, the nightmares Ellen has and her eventual epiphany. The theme that runs through it all is dread. Not one or more of the various meanings we’ve foisted on Stoker’s text–some trendier than others–but the dread of an evil that will show us no mercy.

Nosferatu gives us a vampire with no attractive qualities. This is not the manipulative, silver-tongued villain of Hollywood, handsome and immaculately groomed, seducing his victims perhaps a little too easily. This is the “seed of Belial,” actively avoided and feared, someone whom only the careless or uninformed would go near. The heart of this vampire tale is something beyond tropes, beyond movies, touched upon in books but beyond them too.

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It is the universal dread of the hidden, unseen Thing, the Evil that waits with endless patience in its remote dwelling, like a spider that hangs motionless in a dark corner of a forgotten closet. It is the prey’s fear of the predator, only this predator can also ravage the soul.

Here is something not yet touched by Hollywood. Here is a work of art that we can contemplate, if we can clear away our mental cobwebs and let its dark directness in.

Happy Halloween, everyone! I’ve been wanting to write about this film for years; and now, at last, I felt the time was right.

I hope you’ve enjoyed Return of Silent Horror Month! To see reviews of horror movies and spooky topics from previous Octobers, check out the list here.

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19 thoughts on “Thoughts On: “Nosferatu”

  1. Wonderful analysis, Lea! Another thing that appeals to me personally about this film is the setting—especially that huge and wonderfully primitive castle and its surroundings in the wild Carpathian mountains. Also, the inn Hutter stays in on the way—and the wonderfully atmospheric settings throughout, including Wisborg. And visually everything seems to be *dark*—except for the pale, stark Orlock. Much of this is just Murnau’s genius, his ability to picturize (if that’s a word).

    I think your comments in the last part are spot-on. Legosi’s Dracula knows he’s evil and likes it; but Orlock seems to know—nothing. He is just there, like an unexplained force of nature. To me, he is at his most frightening when he’s just standing there, fixed immobile and staring, yes, like that spider with endless patience. 🙂

  2. Wonderful post. And how refreshing it is to contemplate Nosferatu’s creeping evil, in this age of sparkly, Byronesque vampires. [Trys not to eye-roll, does not succeed.]

    I’m wearied beyond belief of sexy reinterpretations and wish that modern filmmakers would give the vampires back their bite. To me Dracula is a supernatural serial killer and should be treated as such. The best part of the book was rooting for the good guys to defeat him. As I rooted for Ellen to defeat Nosferatu. [SPOILER AHEAD] Her selfless death moved me in ways few modern movie deaths do.

    • The way we’re going, if Hollywood DID actually decide to make a movie where the vampires are actually hideous and horrible the way they should be, people would probably think it was “gritty realism.” 😀

  3. Why is this film so revered? Simple – the shadow sequence of Orlok climbing the stairs is one of the greatest moments ever captured on film!! 😀

    Seriously, I love it because it is so simple, and the eerie atmosphere comes from the Gothic architecture and from Max Shreck’s sublime and committed performance. The fact it is a silent film with creaky looking footage full of lines and scratches adds to the effect for me. 🙂

    • Oh, I know what you mean about lines and scratches. I feel that way about some of the old, old comedies–Keystones, for instance. Even though I love it when something 100 years old is restored close to perfect condition (and buy the DVDs), something about scratches makes you really FEEL it’s 100 years old.

      I do highly recommend the pristine version of Nosferatu that’s out there, if you haven’t seen it yet. It’s Gothic perfection.

      • I like the lines and scratches, too. And even the flickering of the image in the frame (as long as it’s not too extreme). I dislike it when restorers “freeze” the titles so they don’t move with the rest of the film. (Though I think I understand why they do it. Don’t the titles usually have more damage?)

        • Yes, the title cards tended to be the first to go when orthochromatic film started rotting (I think they weren’t cleaned as thoroughly after being processed, or something like that). Foreign copies will sometimes be missing titles, and the main titles were sometimes damaged by projectors.

  4. Naturally I am in agreement here as it’s a one of a kind film. Although now years later it doesn’t matter to viewers, I wonder if the fact that it was nearly destroyed and all but gone had something to do with it’s growing reputation. this of course in reference to Stoker’s widow seeking to have the film burned. (perish the thought).
    Out of curiosity, have you seen Shadow off the Vampire with Dafoe and Malkovich? I kind of like how the writer took a piece of Hollywood history and fashioned it into a fun film that combines vampires and Hollywood history.

    • I have seen it! I think I like the idea better than the execution–Dafoe’s vampire seemed a little too hammy and cartoony to me. Yeah, I know it’s supposed to be kind of a black comedy, but something about the balance of drama and comedy was off. I’ve only seen it once, though, and it’s a contender for next year’s Halloween posts.

  5. I have to rewatch this. I haven’t seen “Nosferatu” since I’ve gotten into silent film so heavily! I’ve seen it twice: I saw it with my mom when I was a kid, probably the first silent film I ever watched. And then I saw a screening of it in the 90s at a little art theatre with live piano accompaniament.

    The audience was HYSTERICAL the whole movie, it was a very young audience. Afterwards, I went to the piano player, who was an old man, to thank him for his accompaniament. He was so perturbed and hurt and perplexed at why everyone was laughing.

    Anyways, I really appreciate this essay because, of course, since then I’ve now seen tons more Murnau! I’m now a major fan! But I keep putting off “Nosferatu” because ahhh, I’ve seen it and yadda yadda yadda. I’ll definitely give it a look in the coming week or so. I’ve been meaning to rewatch Herzog’s “Nosferatu” also. That’s another one, I haven’t seen Herzog’s “Nosferatu” since I got so heavily into Herzog! I just saw it years ago, late night, on cable, probably the mid-late 80s.

    It’s “Nosferatu Week”, that’s it, I’ve just decided! Thanks, Lea!!!!

    • You’re welcome!

      Yeah, I had a chance to see Nosferatu on the big screen around Halloween last year. I get there only to see a line out the door and to hear that it was sold out. Looking back, that was probably a lucky break–I would’ve been really upset if the audience had been laughing at it the whole time!

      If I owned a theater that played silents, I would make sure the films were always introduced before they were played, so audiences would “get” what they were about. That’s important, if you ask me.

  6. Pingback: Silent-ology Is Three Years Old Today! | Silent-ology

  7. Looks like I accidentally trashed a great comment where the gal shared a story about her grandfather seeing this film as a little boy–and couldn’t undo it in time! My apologies to the commenter if she’s reading this!

  8. Pingback: Well, whaddaya know—Crime does pay! – Thrilling Days of Yesteryear

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