CInema Styles: Nosferatu Remains Immortal | News


Note: This review is part of our Legacy series. Nosferatu turns 100 this year.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is the 1922 silent horror film by German filmmaker FW Murnau. Based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this film stars Max Schreck as Count Orlok, a vampire who preys on his estate agent’s wife and brings plague to their town. It is an influential classic in the horror genre and one of the most striking works of the German Expressionism art movement.

Silent film support was limited in that directors could not rely on sound to tell their stories. The reliance on visuals has allowed the best silent films to focus on the moving image, and nothing else. By limiting one aspect of the film, the other aspects were able to be improved, such as the concept of improved sense after losing one of the other senses. Filmmakers were forced to create memorable images that could tell a story on their own.

With Nosferatu, Murnau created a nightmarish atmosphere of desperation, constantly plunging his audience headlong into an anxious abyss of existential dread. The film is engulfed in shadows, with characters often appearing or disappearing out of and into the edges of the frame. The barrier between reality and fantasy is blurring; the film oscillating between the real and the imaginary. Nosferatu intoxicates the spectator and puts him under his spell.

This film is an examination of fear itself. Count Orlok is often seen as a representation of everything the viewer fears. It is a walking and sensitive manifestation of terror. It’s a feeling of dread that follows you around and doesn’t stay still or hide. Like a vampire that needs blood, this fear needs human life force to survive; its entire existence depends on destroying the people it targets.

One specific fear that this film addresses is the fear of “the other.” Filmed in Germany in 1922, one can’t help but think about what was looming around the corner in human history. As a homosexual, Murnau sensed impending persecution from sub-groups within wider German society. He immigrated to the United States in 1926, where he continued to make films. In March 1933, the first Nazi concentration camps were established in Germany. By 1945, more than six million Jews had been murdered, in an attempt to eradicate the “other” from society.

Otherness is a concept unfortunately still familiar to modern society. During the recent COVID-19 pandemic, people have not always treated each other with the respect that human beings deserve. To varying degrees, fear of the other existed for almost everyone. Precautions were taken not to transmit a deadly and highly contagious disease from one person to another. Strangely, Nosferatu depicts this exact experience, but with the plague replaced by COVID-19.

This film was released just two years after the 1918 flu pandemic ended, so deadly communicable diseases would have been on the minds of viewers. In Nosferatu, townspeople wonder “who will be hit tomorrow” and their collective angst is just as relevant today as it was a century ago. When the vampire (spoiler alert) is killed at the end, it marks the end of a mindless killer, just as ruthless as a highly contagious disease.

Nosferatu’s status as a cinematic classic depends entirely on Max Schreck’s audaciously weird and possessed performance. He crawls through the castle in the film, his unnatural movements and the elongated shadows of his claw-like fingernails distorting reality. These claws, along with bat-like ears and rat-like teeth, allowed Shreck to portray Orlok more like an animal than a human.

Like a true creature of the night, Schrek’s Orlok often appears in dark corners of the setting, comfortably shrouded in darkness. It creates some of the scariest and most enduring images in all of cinematic history. This includes Orlok’s slow and disturbing ascent from a coffin as he stares directly into the camera lens and, by association, the viewer’s soul.

The black and white silent film was the perfect way to tell this story. In a film about the eternal conflict between good and evil, what better way to portray this struggle between metaphorical light and dark than with literal dark and light. However, the film is not purely black and white. Gray areas abound, the line between good is blurring into evil, and there is a growing inability to discern where light ends and darkness begins.

During the making of this film, Murnau was unable to secure the rights to Dracula. He still wanted to tell the story, so he changed the character’s name to Orlok and moved the setting to Germany. He made the Earl more of an animal beast than Stoker’s relatively gentlemanly Dracula. Murnau also invented the now standard attribute that vampires can be killed by sunlight. Despite all these changes, the story sounded too much like Dracula, and Stoker’s heirs successfully sued Murnau when the film was released. The court decision ordered the destruction of all copies of the film. Fortunately, several prints have survived.

While Nosferatu was inspired by the works of German Expressionism, particularly the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, he was also a big influence on films that walked in his shadow. It has inspired horror filmmakers for decades, with its widespread use of gothic imagery inspired by the gothic literature genre. The depiction of cemeteries, castles, rats, coffins, and dark forests is reminiscent of Gothic novels and, in turn, influences modern Gothic films like Crimson Peak and The Babadook. Orlok’s ominous gait also influenced the movements of fellow killer Freddy Krueger in Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street series.

In a general sense, the structure of Nosferatu is one that many horror movies still follow to this day. Most horror movies begin with characters living seemingly normal, happy lives. This is important because it contrasts with the eventual misery the characters will experience later in the film. The horror gradually sets in, and common day-to-day events transition seamlessly into disturbing situations.

Nosferatu is an essential classic of German expressionism and silent cinema. It remains an effective and relevant horror film 100 years after its release. It haunts rather than frightens, writhing under your skin and setting up a permanent camp there. This depiction of fear does not jump out of the shadows, but rests comfortably there, growing steadily with each passing moment.

Bobby Styles studied film at UCLA and worked as an editor and producer on several film, commercial and music video projects in Los Angeles. He currently teaches intermediate and advanced video production courses at Monache High School’s Multimedia and Technology Academy. His column appears in The Recorder every Tuesday.

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