This was written for my film class. I think I may have missed the mark on a few points – I’m no Murneau scholar.
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Germany, 94 minutes
Starring Max Schreck, Alexander Granach, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder
F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu was the first vampire film and noticeably had a different flair and originality than later films based on Dracula and other vampire stories. This fact is helped along by the fact that it is the first, made in 1922, and a silent, meaning that how good this film is weighs heavily on the image.
The most famous sequence that sticks in my mind is the climax, when Count Orlok is suddenly vanquished by the light. Prior to his sudden evaporation into a smoke cloud, the camera focuses on the shadow of Orlok’s freakishly long fingers crawling all over Ellen, who is in an understandable state of shock.
Compared to other silent films that I have had the opportunity to see, I think the acting is much more reserved. Usually, the actors are constantly looking at the camera, being overly expressive in order to convey emotions without sound. However, here it is actually much easier to tell what the characters are feeling by their relatively reserved acting. Gustav von Wangenheim as Hutter is probably the best at this. He clutches the picture of his beloved and kisses it. The genuine terror that von Wangenheim’s face is able to convey behind the shadow of Orlok is incredible (admittedly, much better than Ellen’s) and the viewer can easily see that he is doing this in response to Orlok, not so that the audience can tell what he’s thinking. The audience does know what he’s feeling – he’s scared out of his mind – so Murnau knows that that’s not something he has to say. He just lets it happen.
Murnau also went the extra step by doing the whole film on location. Sure, this might be against an expressionistic style where everything is controlled to be as far from natural as possible, but when you are filming inside a medieval castle, it is easy to make that look as unnatural as sets in expressionistic films.
The one thing that does drag the film a little bit, even if it is only 94 minutes, is the ‘ship of death’ subplot. Since I have never read Dracula, I have no idea whether this subplot is entirely necessary, but in the film, it just takes too long. It is necessary to show how Orlok gets to the town, but this is something that could have been explained in an interstitial saying ‘…And the vampire came by boat to the town…’ The sequence introduces no new, important characters to the last act of the film and seems to only serve a purpose to give the also randomly introduced Prof. Bulwer something to do. It does introduce the rats who give the town a plague, but this also seems unnecessary to the story of Hutter, his wife and Orlok.
Nosferatu is still a great film, thanks to its technical wizardry, but I do think it is one whose story has significant weak points that could have been trimmed out.