By not having any, FW Murnau’s visionary film Nosferatu succinctly demonstrates how severely dialogue can dilute and trivialise a piece of cinema. Even disregarding the technical and artistic limitations prevailing at the time this film was made (if by 1929 cinema was no longer in its infancy, it was certainly still pre-adolescent), this film is one of the most astonishing pieces of cinema I have ever seen.
What is greatest about it – and pretty much everything about it is truly great – is the visual imagery and the beautiful way in which every scene is framed. I think I’d have missed a lot of this if I’d been focusing on a linear narrative, which is what an audio dialogue would have obliged me to do. At first the absence of dialogue seems an imposition on the modern viewer (it wasn’t one on the director, for I am certain he felt no need for it) for it forces one to concentrate on looking. It seems an odd thing to say, but in these enlightened cinematic times, I really don’t think we look properly any more. And what a treat it is when you do.
Not a frame is wasted. Each shot – even such innocuous scene-setters as morning light falling across Hutter’s face and Ellen relaxing with a kitten by a window – anticipates another, and creates or reinforces motifs as the film carries on. Murnau subtitled Nosferatu “a symphony of horror”, and (though it must sound frightfully pretentious to say so) the construction of this film really is symphonic.
While it forged countless cinematic devices which have since become cliches of the horror genre, when you view it as a symphony, it really isn’t a horror at all. In this day and age it isn’t frightening, but it certainly is haunting, and beautiful, but more than anything else, it’s sexual. Despite having seen many different versions of the Dracula story (including Coppola’s overtly sexual reading), I had never appreciated how deeply this story is an essay on sexual repression and potency. When you look at it this way – Nosferatu is really just a personification of Hutter’s absent sexuality – the horror falls away. And this is unquestionably how it was intended: Watch Ellen’s first approach to Hutter at the commencement of the film. We see the closed door, resembling a coffin lid. She opens it and creeps around the door, and approaches Hutter – from stage right – with her talons outstretched. When he accepts her embrace she nuzzles into his neck … action for action, it is exactly how Orlock first approaches Hutter in his castle. Given how carefully every scene was framed (from time to time they resemble paintings, they’re so well constructed), this could not possibly be a coincidence.
Aside from the bloodsucking (which apart from the final scene, is all implied), there are many truly haunting images: darkness seeping like blood across the Carpathian valley; darkening skies behind the rugged mountains; the black ship of death silhouetted against the sun; a procession of funerals down an otherwise abandoned Wisborg street; Ellen waiting amongst partially submerged crucifixes on a desolate ocean beach for her loved one to return (note to file: it is Orlock who is coming by sea; Hutter, by contrast, is coming round the mountains); and one quite extraordinary shot in which, as the black horse-drawn coach carries Hutter to Orlock, the frame is suddenly plunged into the negative – but eerily, the Coach and Horseman remain black…
The version I viewed had an extremely enlightening narrative from a satin-voiced Australian film critic, and some interesting featurettes about the history of the locations in which Nosferatu was filmed.
the only point on which I’d mark the film down – and then only really on “authenticity” grounds – is for its curiously (and ironically) dated sounding electronic soundtrack, which sounded like it was generated some time in the eighties. While it is a moody, discordant piece which fits the film well, the obvious anachronism does jar a little at first.
Werner Herzog made a fairly faithful “talkie” remake of Nosferatu in the late 1970s with the great Klaus Kinski as the count and Wagner’s Gotterdamerung providing the soundtrack. This is well worth checking out, but in terms of building your film library, Murnau’s original is a keeper.
Director: F.W. Murnau
Cast: Max Schreck, Greta Schröder, Ruth Landshoff
Runtime: 94 min