Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens Review

Surely no introduction or synopsis is necessary for F.W.Murnau's silent horror classic Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens, the first screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, albeit a loose, unofficial one. A failure to gain permission from the Stoker estate resulted in a changing of the characters' names and a stripping away of the complexities found in the novel. This Dracula, or rather Count Orloc, aka Nosferatu, is a far more prominent figure throughout the narrative, pushing others to the sidelines.

Even when off-screen, Nosferatu's persona invades proceedings. His first appearance, disguised in a feather cap like a perverse Robin Hood, does not come until the 20 minute mark, yet a bleakness and sense of doom is palpable from the very beginning. The film's opening scene, for example, sees Hutter (i.e. Jonathan Harker) gathering flowers in a seemingly idyllic garden scenario only to be asked why he has "killed" them - hardly the expected response. There's a likelihood that Murnau expected a knowledge of Dracula from his audience as a familiarity with the novel aids this aspect immeasurably. Indeed it seems almost cruel to watch Hutter make his way to the castle or discover bite marks on his neck, oblivious to what is happening around him though Murnau has afforded him the opportunity. (He is given a book on varmpiric folklore, a conceit not featured in Stoker's original.)

Yet whilst this atmosphere is building is undoubtedly integral to Nosferatu's power as a truly great horror film, it can seem almost incidental when compared to the titular villain himself. For it is Max Schreck's dead performance that truly drives the film and is the reason why it is still much loved and discussed to this day, more than 80 years after it's inception. The sheer uniqueness of his creation is what impresses, a trait achieved through a number of means. Firstly there is Schreck himself and his strange physiognomy. Of course, make-up has been applied to his features in order to contort and exaggerate, though this could not be done without the framework, so to speak.

Secondly, this is a performance very much belonging to the silent movie era, both in terms of style and, again, make-up effects. As such it would be impossible to recreate. Consider the performances of Klaus Kinski and Willem Defoe in Werner Herzog's 1979 remake and E. Elias Merhige's fictionalise making-of Shadow of the Vampire respectively and note that both have an unavoidable inability to match what has come before, despite being uncharacteristic actors themselves. Or consider Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 interpretation of Dracula which took ample stylistic borrowins from German Expressionism but never applied them to the acting, flamboyant though Gary Oldman is.

Finally, Schreck's Nosferatu possesses an "otherness" that is rarely used in the horror genre, settling as it often does on human villains or mythical creatures (werewolves etc.) Of course, Nosferatu being a vampire does fit into this category, yet there is a stripping away of the typical folklore (gone are the myriad means of dispatchment; crucifixes, stakes etc.) and Schreck's performance is far removed from the seductive predator Christopher Lee or Chris Sarandon's vamp in Fright Night. Indeed, Nosferatu possesses absolutely no romantic qualities; this is a vampire as rapist, not seducer. To find comparable "others" in cinema we must look towards Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien (before the creature became over-familiar) or John Carpenter's 1982 remake of The Thing. Both hitherto unseen creatures of utter evil. And note the dates, it took almost 60 years for filmmakers to catch up with Murnau and Schreck.

Where Nosferatu differs from these films, however, is the fact that we are still offered someone who has recognisably human characteristics, which only serve to make him all the more disturbing. As said, these features may be contorted or exagerated (a huge hook nose, elongated fingers, clazed eyes and of course the thin buck teeth) but they still force a connection that wouldn't be made with Alien or The Thing. Enhancing this is Murnau's decision to utilise location work for much of the film, as opposed to the more typical Expressionist studio sets. The most striking moment comes when we see Nosferatu walking across a deserted town square carrying a coffin (many of Nosferatu's more famous images have understandably dulled owing to overuse, filmmakers as diversas Jean Painéve and Neil Jordan having inserted them into their own pictures), not only because it allows us to see this figure clearly - and note that his walk is again very human, but also because we see him existing in a very real workd. Interestingly, Murnau also adopts a number of special effects to convey Nosferatu's "otherness" such as primitive stop motion and reversing the film into the negative, yet they become almost entirely unnecessary since the audience becomes aware that he is essentially living among us.

To further the reality, Murnau utilises only locations which possess a sparse anonymity, making Nosferatu more universal. However it should be noted that they are adopted not only to ground Nosferatu himself but also the human characters. As said, they are for the most part peripheral, though many do serve a purpose. The most obvious is the role of the victim, of course (such as the captain of the ship that escorts Nosferatu away from his hometown and whose death prompts the wonderful intertitle: "The Ship of Death had a new Captain"), but more important is the role embodied by Ellen (ie Mina). With Nosferatu being driven by thirst rather than emotion (vampires being a slave to their condition), Ellen is positioned as his complete opposite. From this standpoint she is able to provide the films ending, in which she sacrifices herself in order to kill Nosferatu, with it's remarkable power. This is essentially good - Ellen being free of sin - versus evil. And with the latter dominating proceedings for so much of the film's duration, this sudden presence of full emotion in the concluding moments makes them work so well. Just prior to her sacrificial act we are witnes to Ellen embroidering "Ich liebe dich", that is "I love you", as a suicide note, proof that Nosferatu for all its interest in the occult, possesses an emotional core.

The Disc

For this release, the BFI have used the Photoplay restoration screened on Channel Four during the Christmas of 1997. As anyone familiar with this print will be aware, it is one of the best, if not the best, in existence. Certain damage is still noticeable but this is understandable, and given the sharpness of the image, as well as the re-instatement of the original tinting, can be seen as only a minor quibble. Otherwise this is a flawless presentation.

To accompany the images famed Hammer composer James Bernard has been hired to provide an orchestral score. Wonderfully atmospheric, the stereo presentation remains crisp and clear throughout.

Of the special features, the 24-minute interview with Professor Christopher Frayling is the choiciest option. Some may find a certain cheek to his enthusiasm for the disc's print, which means denegrating all previous VHS and DVD releases, but he makes up for it with his discussion of the film. As in depth as a commentary could be without getting into scene-by-scene analysis, Frayling offers his own interpretations as well as noting others that hve surfaced over the years (homoerotic, political, psycho-analytical). The interview's main strength lies in the references made to varous artworks, illustrations of which allow for direct comparisons, a function that wouldn't be possible with a commentary.

The remaining features are all textual. Biographies and filmographies are provided for Murnau and Bernard, and the composer has also included some notes on his apporoach to scoring the film. Those with DVD-ROM capabilities will be able to access notes on the restoration process by Enno Patalas of Cineteca del Comune di Bologna, plus there are the usual BFI additions of sleeve notes (by Philip Kemp) and a link to their website.

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