Last night I popped in the Kino Bluray of F.W. Murnau‘s Nosferatu (1922), which I’ve been absorbing by way of clips and stills since the ’70s but which I’d never watched whole. I’m glad I got it out of the way but I have to say that my respect for Nosferatu as a seminal German expressionist horror film has now been mitigated. The restoration by Luciano Berriatua presumably represents the best this 92 year-old film can look, but the best I can say about the content is that it’s a noteworthy, occasionally interesting slog.
All older films have to be processed by the standards of the time in which they were made, and the stand-outs need to be respected for the rules they broke or innovations they introduced or brought to light. But the legendary Nosferatu is even stiffer and more constipated than I anticipated. I realize that I’m talking in part about my own head as well the film. My respect for Nosferatu is sincere, but from my 2013 perspective it seems as if the relic-y aspects have almost entirely overwhelmed what was once a very avant-garde and out-there (if uncredited) adaptation of Bram Stoker‘s 1897 novel of “Dracula.”
Heavy-handed acting styles are inseparable from any silent melodrama, but the over-acting in Nosferatu is beyond grotesque at times. There’s a certain high-style aesthetic going on here, I realize, but the comically demented expressions used by some of the performers demand disengagement. There’s no watching Max Schreck‘s balding batshit appearance and his mannered, geek-from-hell performance as Count Orlov (I hadn’t realized until last night how tall the emaciated Schreck was) without an appreciative chuckle or two, but Gustav von Wangenheim‘s performance as Thomas Hutter (the “Jonathan Harker” character transplanted to German soil) is almost as bizarre and unearthly as Schreck’s. (“Demonic” is a mild way to describe the smile he offers his young wife in his very first scene.) Ditto Alexander Granach‘s comically deranged acting as Knock, Hutter’s employer. He’s obviously weird, but the basic idea behind this kind of acting is to stop the narrative so that the easily shocked or impressed can revel in the intensity of his eyes and his wheat-field eyebrows and all the rest.
The fact is that while Nosferatu is full of striking or startling images, it may be better — preferable — to process it as a series of stills (particularly those highlighting the makeup and production design aspects) rather than as a film. I used to think Todd Browning‘s Dracula (’31) was a bit creaky and dusty, but it could almost be Run Lola Run compared to Nosferatu — the new bitch on the block.