I love Nosferatu, the classic silent German Expressionist film from 1922. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen it in a real theatre on a big screen, with live music!
The film is based on the novel Dracula, by Bram Stoker, but the author’s family didn’t give permission for the film to be made – since the book was published in 1897, the copyright was definitely in full force in Europe.
To avoid infringing on copyright, names were changed (Dracula to Count Orlok, for example), and the setting switched from late Victorian Britain to 1830s Germany… which didn’t work, because Stoker’s family sued and won the case. All copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed, but one (just one!) made its way to the U.S., where it was in the public domain.
Now, I don’t like modern “horror” movies that bore you with lots of blood and jump-scares and slutty girls getting killed. I prefer true horror films, like Rear Window, that make you feel actual horror and creepiness.
Nosferatu is definitely creepy. A big part of the creepiness is Count Orlok’s appearance: the big staring eyes, the long fingers, pointy teeth, and how tall and disproportionate his body looks. His castle is all gothic angles and shadows.
Speaking of shadows – hot damn, do I miss the way film directors used to employ shadows! The director of Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau, executes superbly creepy scenes with just low-tech shadows. And not only are they creepy, but he uses shadows to make you imagine what’s going on without showing anything explicit – the mark of a true horror director.
Murnau also uses shadow as metaphor/special effect in one of the last scenes, in Ellen’s bedroom. She had already decided to sacrifice herself so that, in drinking her blood, Count Orlok wouldn’t notice the sun coming up and so die from the sunlight.
After the iconic scene in which he goes up the stairs to her room, he enters and the shadow of his hand creeps up her body to grasp her heart!
That’s the joy of a German Expressionist film: you don’t know if this is a literal thing – by some magical force, he grabs her heart – or if it’s more symbolic – now he possesses her. But you don’t care, because it looks so awesome.
The silence of the film is also a huge part of its horror. The beauty of silent film is its reliance on the visual – facial expressions, environment, landscape, motion, costume, light and shadow – and its aversion to the clutter of dialogue. Nosferatu actually has more intertitles/dialogue frames than other Murnau films, but nonetheless it has less dialogue than a modern film. It doesn’t need it.
And that’s why I can’t even watch Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake – because the people are talking. Ew, gross.
So! I hope you are fortunate enough to see Nosferatu from 1922 in a real theatre sometime, with live music – it won’t make you jump out of your seat, but it will give you chills, and you will be gushing with your friends about the directing for hours afterward.
Other thoughts & info about Nosferatu
- A Look at the Mise-en-Scene in the Climax of Nosferatu 1922
- Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror – includes a neat storyboard