Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922, FW Murnau)

nosferatu.0.0

Aka: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The main character’s hometown has been moved from London to the fictional German city of Wisborg. The film therefore has to ignore the fact that a journey from Transylvania to Germany by sea doesn’t make sense. Oh, and for some reason it’s 1838 rather than the 1890s of the book.

Faithful to the novel? Kind of. It’s an adaptation of the novel, yet the makers neglected to pay for the rights (the book was still in copyright, of course). In a fairly half-arsed attempt to muddy the waters, the characters’ names have all been changed. Bram Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement and the courts ordered that all copies of the film be destroyed. Luckily for us, some survived. It’s still the same essential plot as the book, though things deviate from the source material once Count Orlok (the Dracula equivalent) arrives in the town that Hutter (ie, Harker) comes from. Meanwhile, Van Helsing is rewritten as a minor, bumbling local called Professor Bulwer, and other characters such as Lucy, Seward and Quincey are missing all together. (By the way, Orlok’s arrival comes after two-thirds of the movie; in the book it happens after a fifth of the text.)

Best performance: Max Schreck looks absolutely terrifying as Count Orlok. Bald head, big eyes, sharp teeth, demonic ears, long fingers – it’s a primal, creepy, awful image.

Best bit: The stuff on the ship is the most unsettling, especially a shot of Orlok springing up from his coffin as if by magic.

Review: There’s a lot to admire, there really is. For a start, the adaptation makes some economic trims to the book’s plot: this is Dracula striped down to its core elements. So while we lose subtext and complexity, the story rattles along. And for a movie made almost a century ago, there’s a lot of fun to be had on a technical level. Rather than black-and-white, the film is tinted in different colours to suit each scene. There are innovative uses of double exposures and negative images. The sets are in the style of the then-cutting-edge German Expressionist movement. And we see some fantastic locations – in Berlin, northern Germany, Slovakia and the island of Sylt – which may have been used to save money but give the whole thing a grand scale. It’s dated, of course, like any silent-era movie. The overwrought acting styles take some getting used to, while the characters are bland and shallow. But it’s still easy to see why the film has had such an impact.

Seven Venus flytraps out of 10

Next time: Shadow of the Vampire, a 2000 movie set behind the scenes on Nosferatu…

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