Nosferatu and Me

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.

  • Montevideo

    Wells is like the star high school QB set loose amongst the lady librarians – hard-earned reputations can fall pretty fast.

  • Michael Gebert

    I’m a silent buff and ready to tear Jeff to shreds for his ignorance, except yeah, it is pretty creaky. The best thing about it is that it reeks of death all the way through; it’s one of those horror movies that seems scarier for not seeming like a crafted movie at all (see also: White Zombie, Night of the Living Dead, Carnival of Souls). But the filmmaking feels primitive (not just because it’s 1920; I could name earlier films that seem slicker) and also, hell, it’s Dracula, we’ve all seen that one 10 million times, not many surprises to be had there.

    (The first time i saw it, incidentally, it was some Goethe Institute print with German titles and, I swear to hell, a bebop jazz score. That was bizarre.)

    You want to see silent cinema at its best, go pick up the blu-ray of The Big Parade that just came out, restored from original materials with a full orchestral score.

    • flosh

      And if you want to see Murnau at his absolute best, watch Faust and Sunrise.

      • brenkilco

        Movies underwent a remarkable development in the twenties but Nosferatu to Sunrise in five years was a real quantum leap. The Dracula pic really is unbearably static.

      • http://www.hollywood-elsewhere.com/ Jeffrey Wells

        Sunrise, a stone classic, holds up very nicely.

        • MarkVH

          This.

  • JoeS

    I think you just saw it too late in life. Seeing it as a teen on PBS, I just thought it was the most amazing visual experience. I had no idea how images alone could create something so fine. And, I was a big Lugosi DRACULA fan.

    And, then I saw Dreyer’s VAMPYR. Lugosi and Christopher Lee were/are fine actors, but, there’s something spookily eerie about silent/near silent vampirism (something that the underrated 1994 NADJA by Michael Almereyda does in its Fisher-Price PXL 2000 “PixelVision” sequences).

    • Michael Gebert

      After the preliminary scenes, Lee hardly has any dialogue in his first Dracula movie. Jimmy Sangster knew what he was doing.

  • Steven Gaydos

    Has anyone noted direct line between Murnau’s “Nosferatu” and Spike Jonze’s “Her?” The vampire has become US.

    • http://www.hollywood-elsewhere.com/ Jeffrey Wells

      Funny.

  • MarkVH

    Pretty much what I said in my post in the other Nosferatu thread this morning. Worth seeing to say you’ve seen it and note its influence, but yeah, it can be a tough sit.

    On another note entirely, my La Notte Blu-ray arrived last night. Weekend plans have been cancelled accordingly.

  • mizerock

    But watching it makes Shadow of the Vampire that much more entertaining. Eddie Izzard as Gustav von Wangenhein as Hutter? Brilliant!

  • mizerock

    I watched this at the AFI Silver Theatre, accompanied by Silent Orchestra. They were worth the price of admission.

  • lazarus

    Jeff, you missed a great opportunity to flaunt your indie music cred when you failed to title this post “Vampire Weekday”.

  • D.Z.

    I kind of understand how you feel. I was a tad underwhelmed by Potemkin.

  • berg

    this is a film that only existed because it went underground … the Stoker estate sued the film successfully to prevent its release

  • Glenn Kenny

    Wow, no WAY did I see THIS coming.

  • http://www.bigscreenclassics.com/ Pete Apruzzese

    Needs to be seen, as all silent films do, with appropriate live music accompaniment and on a big screen. It’s a completely different experience.