Nosferatu Still A Classic
By Kristin Battestella
Yes, I am going to review, recommend, and praise a silent film. Not just any silent film, perhaps one of the best known pre talkie films. Film historians who treasure The Great Train Robbery and Lon Cheney’s Phantom of the Opera or London After Midnight know where I’m coming from. I’m probably unusual in my generation for liking silent films, and I doubt any teeny bopper today could stand visuals without effects or booming sounds and all that hype. Nosferatu, however, transcends time and technology with its haunting images, eerie score, and spooky story.
For the uninitiated youth, I should explain that silent movies aren’t really without sound. A musical score accompanies the onscreen action, and dialogue is show onscreen via place cards in between cuts. Some of it is silly, with too many exclamation points and women swooning, but this was the style of the time. I find something special in bob haircuts, engraved tin plates, and nitrate film. Film restoration and preservation of classics such as Nosferatu is a necessary cause when remembering each stop on the twentieth century’s technological timeline.
Lawyer Reinfeld sends the newly betrothed Harker to Transylvania to secure real estate for Count Orlock (Max Schrek). The Count, however, gives credence to local legends of vampires. He sleeps during the day, and Harker discovers his coffins filled with earth. While Harker is trapped in Transylvania, Orlock sails to Bremen and prays upon the plague fearing city.
The story sounds familiar, naturally, so familiar, in fact, that Bram Stoker’s widow-yes she was still alive in 1922-sued the producers of Nosferatu for its similarities to Dracula. The German movie makers agreed to make several changes-including the characters names. Today’s English versions have again replaced the German names, but Orlock and Nosferatu have become almost as iconic as Bela Lugosi’s widowed peaked Dracula.
Nosferatu’s director F. W. Murnau makes the most of what was technologically available at the dawn of the motion picture. Lighting, shadows, and of course smoke and mirrors add depth to the two dimension silver screen. It’s not that scary now- today’s audience is too aware to be creeped out when Nosferatu appears and disappears, but the old fashioned over the top acting gets the spooks across. Greta Schroder’s wide eyes and biting knuckles look a bit silly, sure, but they also look like some genuine fright. Likewise, Max Schreck is still as oft parodied and played as Dracula. When we see a teen horror comedy with the dork in pointed ears and rat teeth, we always recall the classic clips from Noseferatu- certain scenes always appear in spoofs or vampire documentaries. Schreck’s stilted walk and claw like hands give the underside of those pretty, sexy vampires. We love vampire hotties like Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, but people in early twentieth Europe feared unnatural and decrepit creatures like what Nosferatu brings onscreen.
Hyper audiences today won’t sit through the relatively short at 94 minutes Nosferatu, but classical music lovers ought to adore this and other silent films. Nosferatu’s score gives all the beauty and fear it needs to and then some. Music takes on the emotional workload for the lack of words, although public domain has given Nosferatu different scores, times, and dvd editions. Collectors have their pick of spooky versions to praise and powerful scores that tug at one’s heart strings. Rare editions of Nosferatu have become quite pricey, so why do films with only music to carry the visual lose the love? (Ahem, Dad!)
Once thought lost and destroyed, Nosferatu has also found its way to low budget videos and DVDs. Look for it on television late one October night or pick up the dvd in your store’s bargain bin. Many cheap collection sets exist with a dozen or more b horror flicks together. Check online for what’s available where. If you must give the tweens something worthy, try similar modern films like the 1979 Nosferatu remake and John Malkovich’s Oscar nominated turn in Shadow of the Vampire.
Just because something has shoddy effects, over the top acting, and no sound, doesn’t make it a bad film. Appreciate Nosferatu with a spot in your Halloween movie marathon.