Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1921)

Directed by F. W. Murnau
Starring: Max Schreck
Running time: 94 mins
Studio: Prana Film
Black & White

Murnau’s Nosferatu is of course a pared down and unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Famously, when Stoker’s widow sued, orders went out for all prints of the film to be destroyed, but fortunately some survived. How much of Murnau’s original cut remains is still open to conjecture, but what we do have is more than enough to be able to say with confidence that not only is Nosferatu one of the absolute masterpieces of the horror genre, it is also one of the great films of all time. That makes reviewing it a little bit daunting, but here goes:

Nosferatu is a film about many things; but primarily it’s a film about Death. Death with a great big capital D. Presented as a chronicle of the Great Death in Wisborg of 1838, we are informed at the outset that the very word ‘Nosferatu’ is like “the midnight cry of the Deathbird” and is capable of causing one to lose the will to live. The story opens, though, with images of life in abundance – bright sunshine; playful kittens; blossoming flowers; and a husband and wife in love – but we are reminded almost immediately that life and its pleasures come at a cost, usually to something or someone else. When our hero, Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), presents his wife  Ellen (Greta Schroeder) with freshly picked flowers from the garden, she is upset by the fact that the flowers have had to die in order for Hutter to show his affection.

Hutter, however, doesn’t seem to let such things bother him. He is a man who believes, or at least is told, that he has a destiny. We are introduced to his employer in Wisborg, a property agent by the name of Knock (Alexander Granach). Knock is the subject of “all sorts of rumours”. We are never told what these rumours are, but given his appearance and suspicious behaviour, it is not unreasonable to assume that they are of an unsavoury nature (more on this later). When we meet him he is deciphering a letter written in some strange code. The letter is from a Transylvanian Count by the name of Orlok, who is looking to buy a “fine, deserted” house in Wisborg; but Knock's reaction to the letter's contents suggests that there's more going on. Tellingly, he thinks that the tottering and near-derelict pile that sits opposite Hutter’s own house would make the perfect home for the Count; and he decides that Hutter would be the ideal person to make the transaction, although it will mean travelling the long distance to Transylvania to meet the Count in person.  This doesn’t sit well with Ellen, who is immediately afflicted with dread on learning the news from her husband; but Hutter seems eager – perhaps too eager - to go, and soon he sets off on horseback, leaving his anguished wife in the care of friends.