Nosferatu Blu-ray Review

F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent masterpiece Nosferatu, will probably not scare a modern audience. But what it will provide in these days of what Mark Kermode cynically (but justifiably) refers to as ‘cattle-prod’ cinema, is an eerie creepiness that is all too often eschewed in a genre saturated with gore and jumpy moments.

This re-released transfer begins with a few screens of para-text explaining the construction of this version (restored in 2005/06) which appears to have been quite a feat in itself. Nosferatu was an unauthorised adaptation of the novel Dracula, and thus soon after its initial release the Stoker estate attempted to destroy every print. Luckily they didn’t manage to get them all – this version was constructed from numerous found prints dating between 1922 and 1939. It is this kind of film restoration and preservation that is all too rarely celebrated to the levels it deserves. What you’re getting with this blu ray is a little slice of film history, which could easily have been lost forever.

The story concerns young Thomas Hutter (Gustav V. Wangenheim) who is sent by his employer to conduct business with the mysterious Count Orlok (Max Schreck) in the Carpathian Mountains. After a foreboding journey (full of fearful locals and odd threats), Hutter encounters the strange Count who takes him to the castle. Hutter is immediately unnerved by Orlok and things get even stranger when Hutter learns that his host has a taste for human blood. Before long, Orlok is revealed as the undead Nosferatu and heads by ship to Germany. Hutter’s wife Ellen (Greta Schröder), who is staying with relatives in her husband’s absence, begins to fall under a strange supernatural spell as Nosferatu slowly approaches.

The film is an utterly fantastic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, featuring a vast number of horror tropes that have inspired and influenced so many as to now seem clichéd.

What remains striking, however, are the images. Murnau has gothic down to a T: the sets, the play of light and shadow, the make-up. Something that caught my attention in particular was the use of close-up footage of carnivorous plants and insects at one point, which provides obvious and yet hugely effective metaphorical value.

What Murnau seems to understand so well is the dramatic irony in the measured delivery of the novel, which he totally embraces, delivering his take on the story with similarly masterful pacing. At the beginning of act 2 the protagonist finds two bites on his neck which he believes to be from the local wildlife – of, course the audience knows better – and an unnerving tension begins rising at this point. It becomes a case of the audience waiting in suspense for the character to realise the truth, before it’s too late. In this respect I have to concur with what Peter Bradshaw recently wrote about Murnau’s film inspiring Hitchcock (although he was referring specifically to films character types).

The most memorable aspect of the film, however, has to be Max Schreck’s performance, which is completely untainted by the hammy, theatrical style that many actors since have brought to the role. In comparison to the flamboyance of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, Schleck is all animalistic menace and supernatural creep.

There is also some serious cinematic innovation here; there are two montages in the film, in which simultaneous events are intercut. Though modern audiences see this sort of thing all the time, Murnau is often credited as being among those who introduced and developed the montage as a aprt of film grammar. It must be remembered at this point that the film was made almost a century ago.

Murnau’s methods for demonstrating the vampire disintegrating as the sunlight hits him or the way he portrays the supernatural powers at play are just two further examples of equally creative innovation. But there are even subtler and simpler moments that left me admiring Murnau all the more. At one point there is what appears to be a tracking shot, in which the camera races towards a boat that sails across the screen – this feels incredibly dynamic for a film made in the 1920s. A deep shot of a long line of townsman carrying coffins down the street feels equally modern.

The money shots, however, are those of the vampire’s shadow creeping into the house and snatching Ellen’s heart, which are poetically masterful. And, of course, the movies most iconic shot (which is also quite possibly its most chilling): Nosferatu rigidly rising out of the coffin.

Though I feel his magnum opus is probably Sunrise, here FW Murnau truly shows himself to be an early master of cinema and this is undoubtedly his first masterpiece.

About The Author

Alistair is an up and coming journalist and writer who graduated from The University of Warwick with a BA Hons in Film and Literature in 2013. He's currently based in the South-West of England and a couple of his favorite films (the complete list is overly long and variable) are Raiders of the Lost Ark and Before Sunset.

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