Subtitled eine Symphonie des Grauens, `A symphony of horror’, this 1922 German film is very different visually from most other expressionist films from this period. As mentioned during my entry on The cabinet of Doctor Caligari, the imagery (usually expressed in the visual look of the sets of the movie) plays an important role in expressionist films. It tends to consist of highly artificial sets and there is almost no use of exteriors. In contrast with these common techniques, a large portion of Nosferatu is shot outdoors, and naturalistic images play an important role in the tone and mood of the film. There are some really beautiful scenes of dusk, and a couple of scenes where we see spiders advancing on their prey, or carnivore plants; I imagine these scenes were significantly difficult to achieve with the technical restrictions of the early 1920s.
The DVD commentary contained some nice details that added to my appreciation of the film. For example, night scenes used to be shot during the day, and then the film was painted on, usually with blue tones, to simulate darkness. Again, the musical score in the DVD was recorded specifically for it, and it was very carefully done and a great addition to the overall effect of the story.
Nosferatu is based on Dracula. This is acknowledged during the opening credits, but the names of the main characters, locations, and situations are sufficiently changed so that Enrico Dieckmann and the other the producers felt confident there was no need to acquire the rights to use the story. Apparently, they had tried to do so unsuccessfully, and later Stoker’s widow tried to sue the company. Unfortunately for her, Dieckmann’s company had gone bankrupt so instead of money she tried to ensure that all existing copies of the movie were destroyed. Luckily for us, her efforts proved futile.
The story stays closes to Dracula in style and plot. We have therefore an offscreen narrator telling us the events as he has finally been able to understand them, several different fonts used on screen to represent letters or books the characters read, as opposed to dialogue between them which, while present, is kept to a minimum. There are significant differences in how the story ends and on the effect of the vampire (Nosferatu, count Orlock) on the townfolks. Also, instead of London, part of the action is translated to Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.
The relatively recent revival of the vampire genre probably originates with Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. Clearly inspired by Dracula, Nosferatu is also an acknowledged influence for this novel. We see for example that Barlow, King’s vampire, relocates to Jerusalem’s Lot with the help of a local businessman, Mr. Straker, corresponding to Knock, the real estate agent of the movie.
Many elements of vampire lore are incorporated into the film, some without being mentioned explicitly. Thus, a river stops Orlock from leaving his castle, and only by having other people carry him across can he journey. Also, he cannot enter a place unless their owners invite him in. There are also references to the power of vampires to transmute, and people refer to a werewolf in the area which seems to actually be Orlock himself.
Very well made and sufficiently creepy, this is a really good movie. There were a few odd details with how the story is told. For example, Bulwer, the Van Helsing character, has a very small role and his scenes, though quite beautiful and useful to set the tone of the story, seem completely unnecessary from the point of view of the actual tale. And Hutter, the Harker character, really comes out as a clueless buffoon, although his character is actually more complicated and his relationship with his wife is rather strange and indicative of serious problems and shortcomings on his part. At the end, events happen to him and very little is the result of his own actions.
Nosferatu, played by Max Schreck, is itself a very scary figure, his grotesque features becoming more exagerated as the story progresses. Now I think I should rewatch Shadow of the vampire to see how close Dafoe comes to capture Schreck’s nuances.