Hailed as a masterpiece of early German cinema and still regarded as one of the best horror films ever made, the 1922 classic Nosferatu has stood the test of time, despite a shaky start. Unable to secure the film rights to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, FW Murnau changed key aspects of the text in order to make his film. This subsequently led to the Stoker estate successfully suing the production company (Prana-Film) for copyright infringement, leaving them bankrupt. In spite of a court order for all copies of the film to be destroyed, worldwide distribution ensured copies would remain intact. Nosferatu has since influenced and inspired generations of filmmakers, spawning loving remakes and homages in the process.
Nosferatu stands independently from Dracula, yet the narrative structure is both true to the original and surprisingly complex. After cheerful businessman Hutter takes a seemingly innocent trip to the Carpathian Mountains to secure a real estate deal with the elusive Count Orlok, he falls ill, without ever suspecting that the cause might be the bite marks on his neck. Meanwhile Orlok embarks on a voyage across the sea to take up residence in Hutter’s town. The ship’s rat-infested cargo unleashes a plague upon the town, and though Hutter is reunited with his young wife Ellen, she realises she must succumb to the vampire in order to overpower him.
To consider Nosferatu simply as a key example of the German Expressionist style prominent in the early 1920s somewhat obscures Murnau’s leanings towards formal qualities, and his use of techniques heavily influenced by nineteenth-century gothic romantic paintings. Nosferatu‘s outdoor locations give a sense of realism, but camera tricks distort perceptions of time and space. Idyllic landscapes can quickly become fearsome, evoking the uncanny and obliterating boundaries between the real and unreal. Yet it is, perhaps, the expressionist elements that help make Nosferatu the iconic film that it is. Most striking is the now infamous image of the huge distorted shadow of the vampire; when he ascends the stairs to Ellen’s room his deformed figure calls to mind all incarnations of (childhood) fears, the terrifying ghosts and monsters which exist in the imagination.
Brought to life by Max Schreck, Count Orlok possesses an other-worldly presence not seen in cinema before or since. His features are grotesquely exaggerated: ears, nose and teeth protrude from a skeletal face, and his hands are claw-like as they delve at his prey: the bizarre physicality of Schreck’s performance complements the expressionist aesthetic of the film. Associated with rats and pestilence, Orlok is a world away from the charming and seductive Dracula depicted by Christopher Lee in the Hammer films. However, an undercurrent of perverse sexuality and desire runs through the film, and the predatory nature of the vampire is literally examined under a microscope by the scientists, as if it can be understood rationally. But this is to no avail.
Nosferatu was the first of many Dracula films, and its unique aesthetic reflects the level of innovation in the German film industry at that time. This definitive two-disc set is exquisitely restored, with painstaking resurrection of the original music and intertitles. With special features including a 96-page book and a making-of documentary, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into.
* Special features of the newly remastered BFI Blu-ray release include a video essay by Christopher Frayling and the two short films Le Vampire by Jean Painlevé and The Mistletoe Bough by early film pioneer Percy Stow, which features a new score by Saint Etienne’s Pete Wiggs. The disc also includes a fully illustrated booklet featuring film credits, film notes by David Kalat and an essay on Albin Grau and Nosferatu’s occultist origins by Brian J Robb.