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Movie Review: Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror

Just playing for time, quite good at playing for time.

Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922 Prana-Film GmbH Dir. F. W. Murnau)

Our intrepid hero, walks towards a door… a door to HORROR!

Ah, how beloved is this first version of Dracula ever filmed? Well, not beloved if you ask Mrs. Stoker who tried to have the film destroyed. See it was used without permission and the studio went bankrupt so there was no money to pay Stoker’s widow with, so the courts ordered the whole thing be destroyed. If they had succeeded, Nosferatu would have been a lost film instead of one of the most famous films from the silent era. There are bits from this movie in many other Dracula movies that would come later as well as many other horror films. The design of Count Orlok particularly is a major difference as almost every other version of the story tends towards good looking seductive vampires while our monster here is a hideous beast all the way through.

Once again an example where glass would prevent people from getting in.

I don’t know of my own knowledge how many people had an experience like mine, but I am fairly sure that Nosferatu is the first full-length silent movie I ever saw. Before that the only thing I’d seen were Chaplin shorts, so as you can imagine this was more than a change of pace. I won’t say it was actually particularly frightening, because in many ways you need to be a little more grown up to be scared by something like this. This however the first long form silent movie I’d ever seen. I know a few other people who count this as their first and I know others who claim it as their own silent movie experience. The point remains that many people have seen this movie, even people who would normally shun old and silent films have seen this. I think it’s that this appeals to the Goth sensibilities. Here is something genuinely old, and genuinely scary that you can’t soften up for kids. Orlok would be scary as a stuffed toy, so you can imagine how he looks in the movie. The Universal Dracula was turned into a rather sad joke by the end, and campiness has followed the Dracula movies like a bad smell. But since this movie is like it is, you can’t really… defang the movie as it were. I didn’t want to make that pun, but it’s the only turn of phrase I can think of.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… pimpin’ ain’t never been easy.

There are many changes made between the original book and this version of the movie. There are superficial changes in names (Jonathan Harker becomes Thomas Hutter and Mina is Ellen) and instead of London we have Wisborg Germany, but the changes run a little deeper than that. The personalities are changed and story points are shifted, in many ways until they hardly resemble their novelic counterparts. Thomas is almost childlike in his exaggerated movements and gestures as opposed to Jonathan’s seriousness. At one point in fact, so childlike does Thomas become that he throws a blanket over his head when Orlok comes calling. So as we see, even when you change the name a Harker is still the dumbest creature you can come across. The Hutter version is probably the dumbest version, or at least the most childish.

You want to me give a hickey? Oh GOD that joke sucks!

Yeah, I see what I did there. Sorry.

The story does still follow the same basic pattern as Dracula, but with many subtle differences. The movie starts by introducing Thomas and his wife in a small domestic scene. If you have an analytical mind you might try to suggest things about the marriage, but I don’t intend to go there. In order to get the plot moving Thomas is sent by this movie’s version of Renfield, here called Knock, to Transylvania to see Count Orlok. Instead of being in a mad house, Knock is Thomas’s employer and a confederate of Orlok’s. We get to see this in a few different ways, with letters and with Knock behaving in the regular Renfield manner of knowing when the master is near and what’s going on all around.

Just a little, tiny bit Freudian.

Upon arriving in Transylvania Thomas stops at an inn for a night and picks up a book of folk lore. This book will give us much of the information the audience gets about vampires within the movie. Thomas is then driven out to the middle of no-where to meet with Orlok’s driver. As usual the driver is of course Orlok himself, but we don’t know that yet. Well, we do now because I just told you. Um… SPOILER! There is an interesting trick which sort of works and sort of doesn’t. When Thomas gets in the black carriage, the film is under cranked so everything moves much faster. Then there is a shot that is in negative, but because they used a white carriage in that shot, it still appears black, as does the driver and horses. When we come to the castle the film is once again the positive image with the black carriage. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t exactly work for me. One of the main problems with it is that I know exactly what I’m looking at. I’m looking at a negative image and as a result of knowing that it’s not scary. Poor old me, knowing too much to be scared. Story of my life.



As is usual, at dinner Thomas cuts his hand and Orlok decides to attack. This attack is strangely off screen, we only really see Orlok approach and then sit down across from Thomas. Thomas then wakes up in the chair, having clearly slept there all night. The implication is clear, but the actual consummation is left to the individual viewer as to what exactly happened. Just off screen is tube of lubricant and a pack of Trojans. Actually, this is really the one place where that joke just doesn’t work. Almost any other vampire movie, yes. Here, no. As I say, this movie just isn’t sexual. With Thomas at least partly in Orlok’s thrall, he remains with Orlok for some time.

They told me this would be slimming. Is it?

One of the interesting features of this movie is that the tinting actually matters here. The blue tints for the night shots, orange for the day, yellow for day and so on. There were almost no real night shots in silent films, because the cameras needed a great deal of light in order to properly film action. For this reason, without the blue tints it looks like the whole movie is shot between eleven in the morning and three in the afternoon, which is foolish. Since Orlok ends in this movie not by a steak through the heart but rather by the light of the sun, the time of day is quite crucial. You couldn’t have the Count walking around during the day, it just wouldn’t work.

Orlok’s shadow puppets were a favorite at sleepovers.

When the big revel of Orlok comes for Thomas to finish the job, Ellen steps in and sends a signal by psychic radio to save him. This moment is sadly laughable, but we do get to see some cross cutting which was something of an innovation at the time. It also manages to transfer the count’s interest from the husband to the wife. That at least gives a reason for him to go to Germany. From there Orlok begins his trip by stacking up boxes of earth and strangely getting a boat. I’ve never understood the need for the boat. Surely Germany is closer by land than by sea, right? After Orlok leaves Thomas makes a break for home as well, but gets hurt and ends up in a hospital for a while before getting home to warn people. Yeah, Thomas really is a Harker, no one else could be quite so stupid.

Stupidest place for a cemetary I’ve ever heard of.

During a short period where the story lags, we see the Van Helsing for this story explain how the natural world has things that are like phantoms and vampires. A venus fly tray and a microscopic polyp are given as representatives of the darkness in the real world. During this time, Knock goes nutso and begins to describe himself as a spider, eating flies he snatches out of the air. While this goes on, Ellen waits by the seashore for Thomas, or possibly Orlok who is on the boat for no good reason. It’s hard to say, but I do know that gothy girls would start to dress like her constantly in the 90s.

That’s a happy man.

The boat does give a good chance for some serious creeps though, which is probably a good enough reason. And of course on the boat you get that famous scene where the count rises up out of his coffin, seeming to be lifted on a board that has its juncture point somewhere around his ankles. He raises without movement beyond his right hand that extends out to scare the bejezzues out of someone. While on the boat, the count picks the crew off one by one, but through sickness instead of blood loss. The vampire here spreads death through plague, as I may have mentioned. I can’t remember if I did and I don’t want to re-read the whole review again (I R Professional) because I’m just adding bits here and there.

Really, this is jsut forced perspective. He’s actually only 3 feet tall

Interestingly, when Orlok shows up he seems to bring plague instead of bloodshed. The plague takes many victims, and it’s clear that this is sickness we’re talking about. Several scenes go by where parades of coffins are seen, people discuss the sickness, and we’re meant to understand this is all from the vampire being around. SO there you go, had I read a little further, the note in my last paragraph could have gone unwritten. Sad really, now I’m typing out useless notes here as well.

Dude, they’re called nail clippers and they aren’t expensive.

We never actually see Orlok try and stalk anyone after the boat until he finally makes an attempt to get to Ellen. All we get are a few ancillary scenes, sort of filling in a few blanks. After Orlok has been in town a while, Knock escapes from his captors and is mistaken by the mob as being the source of the plague. Knock is chased down but they loose him and decide to kill a scarecrow instead when they loose him. I wish I was joking! They really tear down a scarecrow and more or less say that’s that. Peasants! Am I right?

I wasn’t going to show this one, but then I was told that there is a law that you have to have a screen cap of this scene every time you do a review of this movie.

When Orlok finally comes for Ellen, she sends Thomas away to get him out of the way. Then of course, Orlok comes for her, but she keeps him away from his lair until day break. In a completely new idea and one that would endure through out vampire lore, Orlok is destroyed by the sunlight. As far as I know, this is the first time that the sun proves deadly for a vampire, but it would be taken up and used by many writers and film makers later. With Orlok dead, Ellen slips away leaving Thomas alone and broken. Knock sulks about the master being dead. The last shot of the film is a broken castle keep on a hill, clearly meant to be the final remains of Orlok’s castle which has crumbled without him being alive to keep it up.

That tuft of hair behind his ear? Drives the ladies WILD!

You could start analyzing this movie in the morning and not be done by bed time, which is why I’m not really going to try to do it here. I leave it to the viewer of the film to perform that task in their own good time. Here, watch a free copy. My copy of the DVD is pretty good. There are scratches and grain, but it’s got a serviceable commentary and two separate musical tracks. I’ve been told there are better versions of the movie out there, but I’ve never gone looking for it because this one dose well enough. I suppose that says all that needs to be said about it.

Everyone sing “Fade into You” By Mazzy Star! Yeah, I got nothing.

October 13, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment