Nosferatu (1922) Review

12/13/14

Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) Director: F.W. Murnau

“No one can escape his destiny”

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★★★★★

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is truly a triumph of the silent horror genre, and a masterful classic of the German Expressionist movement. The story is blatant plagiarism –an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, because the studio could not afford the rights to the novel. Stoker’s family later sued for copyright infringement, and a court ordered all copies destroyed. Luckily, a handful of prints survived which have since been preserved. Nosferatu, the sole production of the Prana Film company, stars Max Schreck as the lanky and lurching Nosferatu vampire, Count Orlok.

In many ways Nosferatu, along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, set the standard for all future horror films to follow. Though the story is plagiarized from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu is a masterpiece by one of my favorite early directors, F.W. Murnau. Still today, in this contemporary age of flashy special effects and lazy writing, Nosferatu remains a chilling symphony of horrors –a film that accomplishes far more more with a lot less pomp and circumstance.

The story is a framed narrative told by Thomas Hutter (played by German nobleman Gustav von Wangenheim) who lives with his wife Ellen in the fictitious German city of Wisborg (a combination of Wismar and Lubeck, two shooting site locations for the film). He works for a creepy little man named Knock, about whom many rumors circulate in the town. Knock sends Hutter on a long journey to meet a new client in Transylvania, named Count Orlok. Hutter entrusts his wife to a friend named Harding and Harding’s sister Annie. Hutter’s wife remains skeptical of his business trip.

On the road, Hutter stops in the Carpathian mountains at an inn as he nears his destination. The people are horrified at the mere mention of Orlok’s name and they warn him not to go near the castle because a werewolf is on the loose (the creature shown is actually a hyena). In his room, Hutter finds a book about Nosferatu that frightens him. The next day, Hutter takes a coach that refuses to carry him any further past a bridge to the castle. A much darker, black-cloaked carriage appears to take him the rest of the way.

Hutter is then greeted by Count Orlok and he is invited to dinner. At dinner, Hutter accidentally cuts his thumb and Orlok pounces at his precious blood. Hutter goes to bed frightened of the strange Count. He awakens the next day to find an empty castle and two strange mosquito bites on his neck. He writes a letter to his wife to reassure her but privately he begins having second thoughts. In the evening Orlok signs documents to purchase the property across the street from Hutter’s home, but Hutter begins to suspect that Orlok is a Nosferatu, a “Bird of Death.” He runs frightened to his room but there is no way to bolt his door shut and the door opens with the Count slowly approaching. Hutter falls unconscious under the infamous shadow of the Nosferatu.

The next day Hutter ventures down to the castle’s crypt where he finds the Count’s coffin (according to his book the Nosferatu sleeps in the soil of his homeland). Hutter dashes back to his room and he peers out the window to see the Count piling coffins into his carriage and he climbs into the final coffin before departing. Hutter, terrified and thinking of his wife Ellen, escapes out of his window and he falls to the ground. Injured and unconscious, he awakens in a hospital.

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Upon recovering he hurries home whilie the coffins of the Count are shipped downstream. They are transferred to a larger boat, but the crew are skeptical after they see rats crawling out of the coffins. One by one each of the crew members gets sick and dies, until only the captain and the first mate are left alive. The first mate goes below deck to inspect the coffins and he awakens the Count who scares the first mate into jumping overboard. Count Orlok then kills the captain and sails the boat into the Wisborg harbor and leaves undetected with his coffin.

Doctors visit the mysterious ship and after reading its logbook they conclude that the plague was carried by rats and the town is stricken with panic over the plague. Knock had been committed to a psychiatric ward but he escapes after strangling a guard.

Meanwhile, Orlok watches Ellen through his new home’s window, and Ellen reads the book on Nosferatu against her husband’s wishes. The way to defeat a vampire, or a Nosferatu according to the book, is for a beautiful woman to distract him all through the night. That night, she opens an inviting window for Orlok but Hutter thinks she has gone mad and goes to fetch Dr. Bulwer. While he is gone, Orlok enters, in another famous scene of his looming shadow, and drinks the blood of Ellen. He loses track of the time and as the sun rises he vanishes in a puff of smoke at daybreak near the window. Ellen and her grief-stricken husband embrace just before she dies. Apparently, F.W. Murnau carefully constructed this scene using a metronome for the actors.

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The final scene portrays the ruins of Orlok’s castle seated amidst the Carpathian mountains.

The character of Nosferatu is shown onscreen for a total of less than 9 minutes. Today, all the exteriors filmed in Germany are left intact in the cities of Wismar and Lubeck, and can be seen by visitors. Upon release, the film was banned in Sweden due to excessive horror and the ban wasn’t officially lifted until 1972.

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