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Criticwire Classic of the Week: F.W. Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: F.W. Murnau's 'Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror'

now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for
attention. This is the
 Criticwire Classic of the

“Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror”
Dir: F.W. Murnau
Criticwire Average: A+

This week sees the release of both the New Zealand vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” Spike Lee’s remake of the not-quite-blaxploitation vampire film “Ganja & Hess.” They’re both deeply idiosyncratic takes on the horror subgenre, but neither would be possible without the original: F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror.” An unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” the film was nearly was nearly lost when Stoker’s estate sued and a court ordered that each copy be destroyed. The film survived, however, and went on to influence the horror genre for years; it’s impossible to imagine future movies, from Universal’s “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” to Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu” remake, without it.

The story, of a man who travels to a Gothic castle and encounters an ancient monster that travels back home (Germany instead of England) with him, is familiar at this point, but it retains a haunting power. Much of that has to do with the still deeply creepy performance of Max Schreck as Count Orlok, whose hunched posture and pronounced, batlike features (long fingers and teeth) separate him from the more human-looking monsters of future vampire films. Watching Orlok rise from his coffin stiff as a board or stalk through the shadows is watching an actor and director working in harmony to maintain a constant mood of eerie terror. Murnau’s command of shadows and early special effects is masterful, and he turns every moment from Orlok’s appearance onwards (after an admittedly creaky opening) into a walking nightmare.

Orlok brings with him a plague of rats, and many of his murders are blamed on the plague. The use of a monster to symbolize a pestilence of sorts is nothing new, but Murnau also taps into the mood pervading throughout Europe (especially Germany) at the time: one of doom, of disorder, or creeping dread. Within a few years, the Nazi party would rise in Germany, and that mood would turn into something all too palpable. But whether one keeps real world horrors in or out of mind while watching “Nosferatu,” Schreck and Murnau find plenty of ways to unnerve.

More thoughts from the web:

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

Murnau shifted the geographical centre of gravity east in his unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”: now it is Germany, not England, where the sinister Count Orlok, that strange fanged sprite played by Max Schreck, aspires to live. Having been quarantined for so long in the trackless Translyvanian forests, he has now made a satanic decision to spread his malaise into the rational, scientific, bourgeois Europe of the 19th century. The forces of good can hold on to one hope: he can be killed by the sunrise. I can never see the eerie shots of the count’s ruined German house without thinking of newsreels of 1945 Berlin. There is pure expressionist inspiration in Murnau’s juxtaposition of the malign wolves and the terrified old women: a poetry of fear. Read more.

Chris Cabin, Slant Magazine

“Nosferatu” on the whole has the timbre of a technical study of the filmmaking process, utilizing all manner of shots, color tints, and perspectives. This experimentation with the basic components of early film yields a bleak, venomous, and deeply eerie nightmare vision of unknowable power. Upon the film’s release, the power of the cinema was similarly incalculable. At one point, an intertitle explains that to know of Nosferatu’s legend is to become consumed with the fantastical power and creation revealed in the story, which offers an elegant yet unsettling metaphor for how Murnau’s obsession with the technical process of filmmaking served as an outlet to purge a dark, engulfing imagination. Read more.

Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club

Orlok’s transformation into Nosferatu mostly involves removing the hat and adding some talons and fangs, plus extra height and odd movements, but it’s the stuff of nightmares all the same. He’s a thousand times freakier than any other screen Dracula, and Murnau suddenly kicks the film into Expressionist overdrive with the sequence of Nosferatu’s ocean voyage, which leaves not a single crew member alive when the ship docks in the fictional town of Wisborg. It’s singularly chilling even though none of the deaths occur onscreen. There’s something truly unholy about the sight of Nosferatu rising from his coffin completely rigid, as if propelled by an invisible board—the movie’s most iconic shot, along with that of the vampire’s shadow creeping along a wall as he climbs some stairs. Read more.

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

In a sense, Murnau’s film is about all of the things we worry about at 3 in the morning–cancer, war, disease, madness. It suggests these dark fears in the very style of its visuals. Much of the film is shot in shadow. The corners of the screen are used more than is ordinary; characters lurk or cower there, and it’s a rule of composition that tension is created when the subject of a shot is removed from the center of the frame. Murnau’s special effects add to the disquieting atmosphere: the fast motion of Orlok’s servant, the disappearance of the phantom coach, the manifestation of the count out of thin air, the use of a photographic negative to give us white trees against a black sky. Read more.

Tom Huddleston, Time Out London

So many keynotes of the genre emerge fully formed here: the use of light and shadow, threat and tension, beauty and ugliness, a man in grotesque make-up threatening an innocent girl. It could be argued that the film set another, less positive precedent that would go on to plague horror cinema: a tendency to prize shock and sensation over character. But “Nosferatu” remains deeply unsettling: Max Schreck’s contorted performance in the title role, not to mention that hideous, batlike make-up, may be the film’s most iconic image, but the plague-of-rats scene is deeply unnerving too – we can only imagine how it must have seemed to audiences emerging shattered from the Great War. Read more.

Rob Humanick, Slant Magazine

Like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s” Cesare, he is expressionism manifest, though not as a dreamlike somnambulist but as humanity warped by a deathly rancor. The rumors that suggest that Schreck’s effectiveness as an actor is the result of his actually having been a vampire (a notion explored in the simultaneously reverent and screwy “Shadow of the Vampire”) are truly quite silly, though they certainly add to the eeriness of the images unraveling on-screen. Hunched over with a rigid posture and exhibiting pointy ears, centrally located fangs, and claw-like hands, Schreck utilizes the ugliness of these features to harrowing effect, conveying what amounts to humanity long since past any ability to recognize himself, now a creature of habit capable of experiencing only the most wretched of emotions. Read more.

Dennis Lim, The Los Angeles Times

Less frightening than haunting, Murnau’s film conjures a persistent atmosphere of dread and decay, thanks in part to Max Schreck’s immortal performance as Orlok. A startling contrast to the now dominant image of Dracula as a suave sexual predator, Schreck’s cadaverous Count, with his sunken cheeks, rodent fangs and talon-like fingers, has a grotesque, even subhuman quality. This vampire doesn’t turn his prey into bloodsuckers, but he stays true to the Greek root of his name, “nosophoros,” meaning carrier of disease. Nosferatu arrives in the hero’s hometown with a cargoful of dead sailors and pestilent rats, the very embodiment of the Black Plague. Read more.

Noel Murray, The Dissolve

“Nosferatu,” like nearly every vampire movie ever made, has its metaphorical qualities, suggesting that an ancient malevolence was due to sweep across Europe like a plague—which was prophetic, given what happened in Germany over the subsequent two decades. But Count Orlock himself is such a singularly freaky creation that he mostly just represents himself. Shreck and Murnau don’t make Orlock seductive, the way Bela Lugosi and so many others later did with Count Dracula. Even when he’s sucking the blood from Hutter’s pricked finger and asking, “Can we not stay together a little longer, my lovely man?” it doesn’t feel like a come-on. Orlock looks diseased, and if he doesn’t try especially hard to sell his charms to Hutter, it’s only because he’s aware of his own sickly inevitability. No matter what, he’s bound to rise up out his box and take his due. Read more.

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