It had been a large number of years since I had last seen this movie and it was an interesting exercise, because the version I saw all those years ago was definitely not the “ultimate” restored version created by KINO in 2007, which I had my rat army secure from Amazon. I ended up wondering if this is a case where the “old, unrestored” version wasn’t better. I just frankly do not remember the movie moving so slowly. Make of that what you will. It is a fact that, in 1922, people had much longer attention spans.
The story itself is based on DRACULA by Bram Stoker: A young man is sent by his employer to conclude a real estate deal with a vampire and unwittingly unleashes the monster on his fiancee and friends. Murnau changed the names, some of the details, and the ending. The changes did not fool Stoker’s widow, Florence, who sued for infringement. The court decided that all copies of the film should be destroyed. Luckily for us, they didn’t get all of them. NOSFERATU was Murnau’s tenth film, and all but three of these first ten are currently presumed lost. It says something about the movie that it has not only withstood 90 years of history, but also a destructive court order.
And the main difference between DRACULA and NOSFERATU? In DRACULA, the women are mostly clueless and the men save the day. In NOSFERATU the men are useless and a woman saves the day. In the climactic scene, Ellen sends her dull husband, Hutter, on a wild goose chase while she has an erotic encounter with the Count. But first Ellen and Orlok gaze at each other from their windows across the street. Both of them know that what they want isn’t exactly the best idea. And yet they can’t control themselves. Witness:
The shots speak for themselves. If this film had been made in 1999, Thora Birch would have shown the vampire her boobs. As it is, there is a lot of chest-grabbing going on.
Let’s apply the Six Stages of Vampirism to our movie, shall we?
The Six Stages of Vampirism
- Foreshadowing or Warning (see note a.)
- Denial/Obliviousness (see note b.)
- Kill It! or Help Me! or Blarg I’m Dead (see note c.)
a. Warnings must be delivered improperly. For example, a warning might be delivered by a tongueless, scab-covered hag who jumps out of an alley and mimes a dire warning before falling under an oncoming carriage and being trampled to death.
b. Steps one through four actually form a loop that repeats until steps five and/or six occur.
c. Vampire victims usually require the intersession of a third party and may or may not ever reach step 5 themselves.
When considered under the scientific glass of the Six Stages of Vampirism, it is interesting to note that although Hutter realizes that Count Orlok is a vampire, he remains unable to move into stage six. He makes it back home in time, but then flounders as his wife confronts the vampire. Let’s see the numbers.
Creepy Factor: 3 out of 5
Suspense Factor: 2 out of 5
Weird Erotic Tension Factor: 3 out of 5
Funny and/or Strange Factor: 5 out of 5
Final result: It is an inescapable fact that a particular attitude is required to enjoy silent movies. That attitude being: “I love how overblown every gesture is, and also the fact that this moves a little more slowly than the last Bourne movie I saw.” Whether you can swing that or not, NOSFERATU easily joins the great silent movies, and deserves its place among the greatest horror movies of all time. I recommend seeing it in a theater if possible, and (even more rare but possible) with a live accompaniment.
Some last items of note:
- The 1979 remake by Werner Herzog is worth seeing.
- Legend has it that Murnau considered Max Schreck ugly enough to play the monster with just fake teeth and pointy ears added, but thanks to the miracle of film restoration, one can see that prominent fake eyebrows were added as well.
- In 2002 Jill Tracy and The Malcontent Orchestra released a recording of their accompaniment to the movie, titled Into the Land of Phantoms
- Ellen’s Victorian-style banana curls certainly are distracting
Here is where I use my handy vampire classification for this movie.
Good Looking: No
Superhuman strength: Yes
Erotic neck biting: Yes
Drink blood: Yes
Can turn victims into more vampires: Unknown
Must be killed by decapitation or stake through the heart: Unknown
Reflection in mirrors: Yes (Orlock casts a reflection in his final scene.)
Scared of crosses and/or garlic: Unknown
Burn in sunlight: Yes
Goth nightclub visit: No
Mind control: Yes
Ah! I love classifying vampires.