In honor of the great month of October, I am getting in the holiday spirit by only writing about horror movies! Normally, those would be reviews, and after this one, they will once again be reviews. For this particular film though, I am writing about the experience of the film Nosferatu. It’s my first time watching a silent film, and I really wasn’t sure how it would go or if I would be able to give a good critical review without any experience in this style of film making. That being said, I stand by the idea that silent films are totally different to what we get to experience in a theater today, but it still was a very interesting experience.
A little background about Nosferatu. The film came out in 1922. It was directed by F. W. Murnau, a German Expressionist filmmaker. Murnau got in a lot of trouble for plagiarism of Dracula by Bram Stoker. In fact, Nosferatu nearly didn’t exist. Stoker’s wife found out about the film and sought to have every copy destroyed. Luckily, a few copies made their way to the U.S. and the U.K. where they were kept safe. The titular character is named Count Orlok, played by Max Schreck, because Murnau thought that if he changed the locations and names that he could get away with making the film without a fuss. He was wrong, as previously stated, and we’re lucky to have any digital copies available today.
Nosferatu was the firs cinematic attempt at a real vampire, and because of that, it led to many of the tropes we see in modern vampire lore. Interestingly though, it was the second attempt at a Dracula adaptation. The first being Dracula’s Death was, but all copies of it were destroyed, so there is no proof of it existing besides what we have in writing and spoken accounts of the film. That leaves only Nosferatu as the first ‘living’ adaptation.
The first thing I noticed about silent films is that you have to be invested and pay attention the whole time. I actually had to restart the movie 3 times simply because I got up to go to the bathroom and missed something or my mind wondered because I was getting tired. It was a bit of a mental investment into the film. So, that was really interesting. It was a bit of a change from modern movies where there is an app that tells you the best time to go to the bathroom because nothing important is happening. I felt like everything was important and I didn’t want to miss a second.
The second thing I noticed was how unsettling the camera work is. The scenes seem to linger just a hair too long which gives a rather uneasy sense to the whole thing. This camera trick follows throughout the whole film. Every scene that seems to need to cause unease does so by just holding instead of simply carrying to the next scene. One such example is when Harken, played by Gustav von Wangenheim, is traveling to Transylvania to Orlok’s castle. The cart he is traveling in completely crosses the screen, but the camera stays behind even when the cart is completely out of the picture. Situations like this left me uneasy, presumable foreshadowing the horror to come that would be Orlok’s castle and it’s sole inhabitant.
The last thing I noticed about the movie is that the lyric cards where the words were displayed, stayed on screen for a long time. I know this is to allow anyone to be able to read them, but it was sometimes annoying how long they were left up. Also, the ‘dialogue’ that the lyric cards held was very rudimentary. What I mean by that is that it was basic, almost annoyingly so. The most obvious one was when Harken was officially selling the house to Count Orlok and Orlok sees a picture of Harken’s wife, Nina, played by Greta Schroder, and Orlok says, “Is this your wife? What a lovely throat.” It’s the most obvious statement ever to make it seem like he wants to suck her blood.
The blood sucking leads perfectly into the dissection of the film critically! I know this is more about the experience, but the dissecting of a film is part of the experience.
Nosferatu plays on the same idea that the novel Dracula does by using vampires. Vampires are a very interesting piece of lore though. The blood sucking aspect is meant to be played as a sexual thing. The way a vampire is able to make you give the thing that makes you human, and it is quite literally your essence giving you life, is a sexual act. Plus, in the Dracula novel, Count Dracula is a very attractive man that could seduce any woman he wanted because of how suave he is as well as physically attractive. The vampire’s teeth are entering the human body and are a phallic symbol really. This makes for an interesting statement about Orlok as he sucks the blood from Harken first. That implies a homosexual attraction, but Orlok not being satisfied and seeming to have a connection greater than simply a desire for the blood of Nina when he sees the picture of her Harken is carrying. Now, keep in mind the film is made in 1922 where homosexuality is a lot more shunned than now. With that in mind, Orlok’s blood sucking of Harken is a true atrocity. It’s seen as simply wrong.
Keeping in mind the seduction aspect of blood sucking, when Orlok finally sucks Nina’s blood, it is the ultimate sin. There is a mixed message here in the film because Nina is the secret hero because she has to give up her blood willingly. She is heroine of the film because she is pure of heart and is sacrificing herself to kill Orlok. Now, I’m sure that is making you wonder how it’s a mixed message, but remember how bloodsucking is a sexual act? With that bit of info, Nina is willingly cuckolding her husband to have Orlok suck her blood, but it is the only thing that is enticing enough to keep Orlok there until the sun rises and he is vaporized. So, there is the mixed message. Nina is, in a way cheating on Harken, but it is for the good of everyone else. The ultimate mixed message. It is assumed though, that Nina dies at the end which is making the ultimate sacrifice, but it is also her punishment for giving herself up willingly. It shows how unfair justice is sometimes.
Okay, so I would give this movie a pretty high rating actually. It had a lot of cool content and was still scary today. The effects are something I didn’t talk about yet, but there is some really cool work that was done. They used stop motion to demonstrate Orlok’s magical powers and to make it seem like he was floating instead of walking. The way Schreck was able to portray Orlok was totally inhuman but at the same time kind of normal. It’s a very impressive performance. I can’t really compare it to anything that is out there today, but it made for an incredibly unsettling feeling anytime he was on screen. If you haven’t seen Nosferatu, I would recommend it. It’s an interesting experience and maybe I will revisit it later for a legit review rather than talk about what it was like watching my first silent film.