The Timeless Horror of Nosferatu’s Slinking Shadow Climbing Across a Wall

[6 December 2013]

By John Oursler

Few characters in cinema have proved as indomitably influential as Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Even those who think they haven’t seen Murnau’s iconic horror ur-text actually have only secondarily. They have experienced it in homages and parodies, seen its influence on every successive horror film that has made use of the pioneering techniques of German Expressionism, been terrified by the image of a slinking shadow climbing across a wall.

Viewers know him better as Nosferatu, the ghoulish Dracula figure with long fingernails and ghost-white skin that subsists on human blood. The legacy of Murnau’s film is such that it has become permanently synonymous with horror, ineluctable from a wider dialogue on genre, and, like great art has the tendency to be, fascinating to rediscover.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror was released in 1922, nearly a century ago. For the mathematically uninclined, that’s 100 long years. Obviously it is, but it’s illustrative to think about on its own, even more so when the film’s impact is given historical perspective. Cinema at the time was in its infancy, a dialogue-free medium that relied upon, and at its best thrived upon, the lingering impact of the image. This limitation helped catalyze movements in formalism such as German Expressionism that exaggerated shapes and figures for effect, seen here in each of Orlok’s prolonged shadows.

Murnau’s film is itself an adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula, though legal issues at the time precluded the conference of title and character names. Thus, we have Count Orlok rather than Count Dracula, Noferatu rather than vampire. In fact, nearly all the prints of Nosferatu were destroyed several years after the film’s premiere, thanks to a lawsuit by Stoker’s widow.

Thankfully, some early film preservationists tucked away a few prints and protected the legacy of one of cinema’s first true masterpieces. This legal hullaballoo didn’t negate the film’s impact; though Nosferatu was marginally unsuccessful upon initial release, its reputation has grown exponentially throughout time. German visionary Werner Herzog recreated the film nearly shot-for-shot in 1979, and, more recently, Shadow of the Vampire re-enacted the famed pairing of director and star through a fictionalized “making of” starring John Malkovich and Willem Defoe, respectively. These are just a few of many illuminating anecdotes revealed in Kino Lorber’s astounding refurbishment of the film.

Speaking of the film, the story it tells is now practically common knowledge. A small-town German man, Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is urged by his boss to travel to Transylvania to sell one of the town’s properties. Through the Carpathian Mountains he goes, along the way greeted with reproached stares and bewilderment when he mentions to strangers that he is traveling to see Count Orlok.

He eventually arrives at Orlok’s lugubrious estate after an appropriately portentous voyage, welcomed by a cloaked figure eager for the company of a wary traveler and potential meal. Hutter first senses trouble when Orlok rushes to his hand after a small cut draws blood. He hopes to fly under-the-radar that night by hiding out in his room, but Orlok, clearly with other plans, visits unannounced, feasting upon his guest. 

It seems that by visiting Orlok, Hutter unleashes some sort of newfound zest in the vampire, who places himself among a cascade of coffins in a vessel headed for Hutter’s hometown. This chain of events occurs while Hutter recovers from a bloodsucking-induced loss of consciousness, who is now panicked for his wife’s safety and trailing far behind.

With some rats in tow, and a clear agenda at world domination, Orlok arrives at Hutter’s village just in time to find his wife alone and ready for the taking. Or is she?

Accompanied by a macabre, grand score, Murnau’s Nosferatu haunts well into these times. Each composition is meticulously crafted to incite dread, and they do. In Count Orlok, Murnau has created a modern mythology that would be relayed for generations. Even today, Schreck’s embodied performance of an unmoored villain inspires copious pastiche, with the sunken eyes, dangling, overlong fingernails, and protruding incisors amounting to the template for villainous portrayals and Halloween costumes the world over.

Lorber’s comprehensive overhaul left no stone unturned. The print is vibrant and pristinely restored, as is the accompanying soundtrack. The release also features some of the best special features of any disk this year. Not only is there an expansive hour-long documentary on Murnau and the making of the film, but there is a rare collection of Murnau’s short films and excerpts from all his others as well. He would go on to make Tabu, Greed, and Faust, all well-regarded, canonical titles in their own right. But you need look no further than his Nosferatu to see how Murnau influenced countless films, filmmakers, and storytellers.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/176873-nosferatu-by-f.w.-murnau/