“Is this your wife? What a lovely throat…”
I’m always skeptical about recommending silent movies to casual viewers because I rarely enjoy them myself, even as a hardcore film buff. Frankly, I just haven’t the patience – for my taste, silent movies are just too old, too removed from our own world, too much like hard work. Unless you’re an aficionado, silent film requires the modern viewer to rewire their brain in the process of watching to make sense of what they’re seeing. The performances are usually so broad and theatrical to compensate for the lack of dialogue, and the absence of sound is often deafening.
With this in mind, watching F.W Murnau’s Nosferatu is like taking a long stage-coach ride to an remote land of ancient legend and lore. Almost a hundred years old, the copy I saw was scratched to buggery, and looked like it could have been shot in the year the film is set, 1838. Through Murnau’s iris lens I was transported to a world of light and shade, where one of cinema’s most memorable bogeymen scuttled in the shadows – Max Schreck’s Count Orlok.
The story might sound familiar to fans of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A real estate agent named Hutter (von Wangenheim) is sent by his boss to Transylvania to meet Count Orlok (Schreck), who wants to buy an old house in Wisbourg, Germany. The locals warn Hutter about venturing too close to the Count’s abode, but Hutter is clearly not the superstitious type. Arriving at Orlok’s home, he finds the count a welcoming but rather peculiar chap, seen only at night and making odd comments about blood and people’s throats…
Flagrantly ripped off from Dracula, Stoker’s family sued the filmmakers, and the court decided Murnau’s classic should be destroyed. Luckily, one survived, because Nosferatu remains the scariest adaptation of the novel, and Schreck the definitive screen vampire. In case anyone needed reminding, the performances of Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman seem incredibly campy and dated by comparison.
Later incarnations of the bloodsucker tended to romanticize the Count, and round him out as a tragic figure. Here, Murnau makes no such attempt. Orlok is a creature of nightmares, a pestilent, accursed wretch with pale skin, bat ears, rat teeth and claw-like fingers. He looks like something that has spent four hundred years sleeping in earth-filled coffins, emerging only at night to feast on the blood of the living. Only the barest vestige of humanity remains, and when Schreck is on screen, you forget that you are looking at another human being.
The iconic images of Nosferatu have become part of our film language – Orlok’s distinctive look,his elongated shadow creeping up the stairs, his uncanny way of rising vertically from his coffin. References to Nosferatu are found in popular culture as diverse as Spongebob Squarepants, The Shining, The Fast Show and last year’s What We Do in the Shadows. Not bad for a film almost a century old.
Nosferatu is one silent film that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone with an interest in horror. Orlok is the purest representation of evil lurking in the dark, and the story unfolds with such
a dreamlike, picture book quality that you soon forget that there’s no sound.
In the end, the simple poetry of Orlok’s demise moved me almost to tears. As a modern audience, we are used to a spectacular conflagration when vampires get caught out in the sun. Nosferatu’s elegant fade as dawnlight strikes him is quite beautiful – light conquers darkness, and the shadows that haunt us in the small hours are vanquished. End of story.