Nosferatu (Day 6)
My Opinion: 6.2 || A landmark movie that’s in bad physical condition. I wish I could have risen above the technical limitations. But for me, it was a movie more to admire than to enjoy — with a few nice and important exceptions.
TITLE: Nosferatu (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens)
DIRECTOR: F.W. Murnau
LANGUAGE: German | COUNTRY: Germany
PROFILE: Horror, Silent | 94 minutes | IMDb (8.0)
SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of IMDb): Vampire Count Orlok expresses interest in a new residence and real estate agent Hutter’s wife. Silent classic based on the “Dracula” story.
Hemming and Hawing: Am I grading on a curve? That’s the key question for me with Nosferatu. Am I “giving points” for technical accomplishments and historical significance or am I putting that aside and evaluating the film as a standalone object (as if it were made yesterday, exactly as-is, and not 90 years ago)?
As I understand it, the film has been pieced together from multiple prints that are in frail condition. The lighting and tinting shifts dramatically from one scene to another, and even the best-quality images suffer from the limitations of early twentieth-century film technology. It’s also silent, which is its own limitation. Of course, those shortcomings are not Murnau’s fault — and they make the movie’s continued power all the more impressive.
Okay, so I do like to understand the historical significance of films. But I don’t want this journey to become an overt exercise in film history. (Much as I’d enjoy that, I need to maintain some boundaries on this already-crazy undertaking.) The standard I want to follow is that I describe my direct experience of the film as it is.
Strengths: Enough preface. Nosferatu is a flawed movie. But it’s a great one too. There are outstanding images (by any standard), and several scenes are very spooky. And Max Schreck as Count Orlock (Dracula) is as creepy as creepy gets. It’s not possible to imagine better casting, better wardrobe, or better makeup (those fingers!). No amount of CGI in the world could create a more macabre looking Dracula.
There’s no way to watch the film without taking satisfaction from the effects. I’d love (when I have the bandwidth) to see an analysis of how Murnau achieved some of those images with the equipment and film available — really impressive.
Weaknesses: On the debit side, there are many distractions caused by the poor image quality, including all sorts of jarring shifts. There are scenes that are presumably meant to be occurring at night that look day lit. In most cases, I caught on and told myself, “Okay, this is supposed to be night,” but that kind of intellectual process takes you out of the moment. (And it’s a particular problem here, where day and night make all the difference.)
There’s strong acting in the movie, and not just from Schreck. But Gustav von Wangenheim, playing the protagonist Hutter, gives a histrionic performance that does not age well. That’s true of other characters as well. I know it was the style of the time, but the contrived quality of the performance distracts very much from the mood. (And we can’t completely blame the time period. Sunrise, which Murnau made only a few years later — and which I really like — offers more natural acting throughout.)
Viewing Note: My copy of the movie has a recently produced score that I mostly enjoyed. There’s an argument to be made that I should have turned it off because the music is an add-on that Murnau had nothing to do with. It was a nice 5.1 mix that enhanced the mood substantially (except for a few points), and I’d have enjoyed the movie less without it.
Best Scenes: The switch to negative as Hutter is approaching the castle. Great image that holds up beautifully. The scenes on the soon-to-be ghost ship are all very strong. And Murnau uses shots of carnivorous plants to great effect — really savvy artistry, and the images themselves are beautiful.
File Under: horror, silent, historical significance, film technique