Nosferatu Review

What more can one say about F.W Murnau’s 1922 silent classic Nosferatu, the first screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula? The greatest horror film ever made? Well, it’s more than just a horror film – it’s also one of the best films ever made. In a genre has been debased by cheap gore, mindless slasher flicks and scary movies that are designed to make you jump every few minutes at sudden edits, Nosferatu still retains its power to disturb on a profound psychological level, exploiting the viewer’s own personal, innermost, irrational fears and putting them up there on the screen for us to recoil at in horror.

Historically, even the film itself has been shrouded in mystery and rumour. Nosferau, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror) was the only film made by the Prana Films, a company with links to an occult group that producer and art director Albin Grau was involved with – the film itself being billed as the first genuine occult movie. Adapted freely and without permission from Bram Stoker’s novel with a few names changed, the film was then the victim of a lawsuit brought against it by Stoker’s widow Florence. Rather than seek financial compensation, it was agreed that all known negatives and prints of the film would be destroyed. The film’s lack of success and the outcome of the lawsuit finished Prana as a film production company, but fortunately, a couple of prints of the film survived and are still in existence.

Perhaps the strangest rumour surrounding the film – one elaborated (not entirely successfully) in the film Shadow of the Vampire - is that a real vampire was used for the role of Count Graf Orlok, the film’s Dracula figure. Indeed, perhaps the key element to the film’s success is that there is nothing vaguely human about Max Schreck’s portrayal of the Nosferatu. He has none of Bela Lugosi’s strange beguiling foreigner, none of the suave menace and seductive charm of Christopher Lee’s aristocratic incarnation of Dracula, and none of Gary Oldman’s misunderstood monster bringing the promise of raw animalistic sex to repressed Victorian ladies.

Looking like a cross between a spider and a rat, Schreck’s creature is rather the perfect embodiment of evil upon which the viewer can project all their deepest, unspoken, irrational fears, and as such comes closest to giving form to the subtext of Bram Stoker’s original work. His Count Orlok is such a monstrosity that, on his own, he is capable of representing a virtual plague, a xenophobic and anti-Semitic fear of a nation being swamped by odd-looking, sexually threatening foreigners who mean to seduce our women and suck the lifeblood out of a population. These are deep, primal terrors that anyone will identify with, even should they be rationally minded and not believe in ghosts and monsters – the fear of death, fear of the sexual act, fear of darkness, and fear of the unknown lurking in those shadows of one’s own mind.

Murnau draws these elements out fully in the subject, concept and execution of his treatment. Nosferatu is consequently a masterful lesson in light and shade, the prime tools that are the essence of the cinematic image as well as representations of the internal struggle with the darker elements of the human psyche – between human reason and one’s animalistic tendencies. But for the change of names, the first couple of acts of Nosferatu hold fairly close to Stoker’s original storyline. Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is sent by his employer Knock (Alexander Granach) to Transylvania to meet Count Graf Orlok (Max Schreck) and conclude a business deal over the purchase of a property that lies opposite Hutter’s own home. Arriving at an inn, his announcement that he is going to visit the castle of Count Orlok is regarded with shock, disbelief and even fear. Hutter is not deterred however by tales of werewolves nor by the book that he finds in his room warning of the vampire Nosferatu, the undead and unholy creations which prey on the living.

When he crosses the bridge that leads to the castle however, Hutter finds himself in strange place that doesn’t conform to his experience of the world – the lightness of the first half of the film giving way to a nightmare world of darkness, shadows, threatening arches and angles, of inverted colours and inverted behaviour. Too late, Hutter realises the danger he has exposed himself to and is corrupted by the evil of his undead host who, sealed within a coffin and accompanied by a plague of rats, makes the sea crossing in search of Hutter’s wife Ellen (Greta Schröder), who he also intends to also corrupt.

So often has this story been told and corrupted itself that it may be difficult for a modern audience to relate to - anyone seeking to find the eroticism now more commonly associated with the vampire mythology in the Count’s quest to possess Ellen will be left confused. Inspired by the horrors of the First World War, the seduction recounted in Nosferatu is rather the seduction of evil, a surrender to the forces of darkness in others and to the darkness within – horrors which are much more terrifying than any mere ghost story.

Nosferau, eine Symphonie des Grauens is released in the UK as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series as a 2-disc set. Restored by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, the feature is presented on a dual-layer disc, while the extra features are contained on the single-layer disc 2. The set is in PAL format and is not region encoded.

Clearly every effort and all the latest technology available has gone into making the most of the scant original elements that remain of Nosferatu and bring it back to as close as possible to how it was originally intended to be seen and heard – and it is indeed an impressive restoration. In spite of the limitations, anyone who has ever seen the film before on any previous edition will clearly see the improvements that have been achieved here.

Digitally restored, with many scratches and instances of heavy print damage removed, the image is cleaner, smoother and more stable than any previous version of the film I have seen. Some tramline scratches remain, but most are erased or rendered almost invisible. There is still some evident flickering in one or two scenes and some instability, but the transfer handles them well.

The original speed of 18 frames-per-second has been preserved. Inevitably, this means that interlacing is unavoidable when transferred to 24fps for PAL television, so some blurring of the image may occur, but this will not be noticeable to most viewers during normal playback.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the restoration however is the colour tinting, which now allows night-time scenes to be projected in blue as originally intended, rather than the whole film and the exploits of the creatures of the night appearing to take place in bright daylight. This is essential for conveying the intended tone of the film, and it makes all the difference.

One consequence of the tinting is that it would appear to smooth out and reduce shadow detail that may have been evident in uncoloured prints. Screenshots are shown below comparing the original Eureka edition with the new tinted edition (click one or more images to enlarge). The old version would appear to be sharper and show more information, but this is actually not the case. It is clear that the contrasts in the old edition are completely blown out, and it loses the tone of darkness and menace that the scene is intended to have. And while the screenshots indicate that shadow background detail is missing in the new edition (note in particular the detail in the painting in the background behind Orlok in the first image), the necessarily compressed screenshots are not accurate in this respect and the full detail is still evident, though much more subtly and blended into the dark room as they are surely intended to be, without distracting from the main subject in the frame.

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Still images moreover only tell half the story – the image is actually sharper and clearer than still captures of an interlaced image would suggest – but what also can’t be conveyed here are the advances in fluidity of the image and the amount of constantly flickering flecks of damage that have been removed.

A final caveat – although the new transfer may be closer to how the original image was intended to look, many who are familiar with the old crackly, damaged version and quite like the tone that the ancient, battered, archival look lends to the ambience and authenticity of the film, will certainly find the new smoother, cleaner edition a radically different experience. It may take some adjusting to the new look of the film, but with the original score and tinting restored, it’s a remarkable experience.

An original score by Hans Erdmann was written for live performance at the original showings of the film but has never before been recorded for a release with the film. This DVD contains a newly recorded version of the original score and it is marvellous, punctuating the film perfectly and emphasising the Romantic aspect of the film rather than adopting any abstract Expressionist tone. As a new recording, the sound quality is of course flawless. Two mixes are provided, a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix and a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix. Personally, I preferred the directness and impact of the stereo mix, but both options are available to make your own choice.

The original German intertitles have been restored where possible, with new ones created in the same style. There is more detailed information on the restoration of the intertitles in the booklet that accompanies the set. English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional.

There is a full-length audio commentary by Brad Stevens and R. Dixon Smith. Like the Masters of Cinema release of Tabu, they form an odd but complementary couple. Stevens again takes the hardline view, seeing the Expressionist film in terms of motifs and psychological readings, while Dixon Smith sees the Romantic side in the Casper David Friedrich inspired imagery and the film’s supernatural elements, also providing a lot of historical references to Murnau and silent movies. Both views are compatible with the film and the commentary is consequently well-balanced and interesting.

Disc 2 is almost entirely given over to Die Sprache Der Schatten (The Language of Shadows), a long documentary on Nosferatu and Murnau’s early films. There is some examination of Murnau’s background and that of his collaborator’s – particularly Albin Grau’s interest in the occult - and a little on the film’s presentation in 1922. Using historical maps, photos, letters and archival newspapers, the larger part of the documentary however is given over to identifying the German and Slovakian locations used in the film and showing how they look today (many of the locations remain unchanged). This gives some indication of the shooting positions and schedule, but is of minor interest. Much more intriguing are the outlines of Murnau’s first six “lost” films, with archival still photographs.

A brief Restoration Demonstration (3:14), briefly outlines how the existing print was digitised and subsequently digitally restored and coloured, showing before and after comparisons of one particular scene.

The DVD comes with the usual Masters of Cinema thick booklet of essays and information about the film, illustrated with stills and archival images. The articles by Thomas Elsaesser (No End To Nosferatu) and Gilberto Perez (The Deadly Space Between) are long and deeply tedious, spinning out thin theories with comparative studies, psychoanalytical examination and philosophical references. An archival piece by Albin Grau, the film’s producer, relates a vampire story heard in the Serbian trenches in 1916 that inspired the filmmakers’ vision of the nosferatu. Enno Patalas provides notes on the restoration in On The Way To Nosferatu in terms of the research done into finding the original intertitles, investigating the correct colour tinting to be applied and the use of music to accompany the film. In The Bridge Craig Keller looks at one seemingly insignificant scene and intertitle in the film for deeper meaning.

With countless DVD editions of Nosferatu already released, each one claiming to be better than the last, do we really need another “definitive” edition of Murnau’s horror classic? The answer would seem to be yes. Restored by the wonderful people at the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, who have preserved and restored many of the most important German films in early cinema history, this edition not only looks better than any previous version, it is correctly tinted and has Hans Erdmann’s original score made available for the first time since it was performed at the film’s 1922 release. The impact this makes on the film is significant, making not only its qualities as a silent film, an example of German Expression, and as a horror film more evident, but ensuring its status as simply one of the best films ever made.

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