Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau, 1922)

14Apr10

Max Schreck (Graf Orlok), Gustav von Wangenheim (Hutter), Greta Schröder (Ellen), Alexander Granach (Knock). Directed by F. W. Murnau. Written by Henrik Galeen. Rating: PG. Running time: 88 minutes.

I think it’s very hard to watch a film completely alien to you in its type, and still manage to write a review reflective of that film itself, moreso than commenting generally on its genre. Hence, how am I to distinguish between 1920s silent horror by a German expressionist and this film called Nosferatu about vampires that I recently saw? I have no idea how, and I am also torn between considering it for what it will have been in 1922 and deciding its value for viewers today. What follows, though, will certainly be an attempt at fairness and objectivity.

Firstly, Nosferatu really isn’t scary, if scary means an impulse to look away or at least a little sweat building up on one’s forehead. There are no ‘jumpy’ parts where the antagonist suddenly appears on the screen from off-camera and launches into an attack. I mean, you always see the vampire coming from a mile away, and his intended victims do too. And I can’t quite understand why they sit there in panic, or even fall asleep in bed, rather than running for their lives and never returning to the place in question. But they don’t, for some reason. Everyone seems to be aware of the existence and presence of a blood-eating, stiff-backed freak in the neighborhood, but they all panic quite passively rather than taking direct action.

This may be a little harsh. I think the final scene (which is actually only the second real vampire attack in the entire ninety minutes) manages to create a significant amount of tension, through the shadow-visuals, exaggerated pants-shitting shots of the apparently epileptic woman to make up for our inability to hear her screams, and the booming classical music to replace them. Even the unusually tinted cinematography feels right, though apparently this was chosen for practical reasons to make daytime filming look like night.

It is just strange though to think that German audiences will have been genuinely petrified by this, even if it was ninety years ago. Nosferatu treats its subject matter of vampires with real fear. Everyone in the film is scared of them; there’s nobody trying to stop their actions. And Murnau holds the camera on the vampires’ heads for extended lengths of time, as if seeing their pale faces and fanged teeth is more than sufficient to give us the chills.

Perhaps I have been conditioned by The Omen, Shining, Sixth Sense and countless other modern horror films, but I must wholeheartedly confess that the PG rating for Nosferatu doesn’t surprise me. I can appreciate its value as, no doubt, an initiator of the genre before vampire films were cliché, and the cinematic techniques are certainly praiseworthy. But not to the extent that it’s scary. If only I could pop back to 1920s Germany…

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