The hand of F.W. Murnau is less noticeable in this early classic of his, but Nosferatu still works seamlessly as a piece of drama and horror. In fact, it by now has become somewhat of a horror classic and the archetype when it comes to vampire movies, taking a lot of inspiration from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I think one of the things that makes Nosferatu so gripping is the fact that it mixes the plausible with the supernatural making for this weirdly rewarding ride. Is it scary? No, not in the modern sense of the word.
But it’s a story steeped in Myth. There is mention of the Black Death, supernatural creatures, and a being that “suckles himself on the hellish elixir of their blood.” What wonderful imagery that develops a genuine awe in this devilish being. And yet in the same instance, we’re getting scientific explanations of venus fly traps and tentacled polyps acting as symbols certainly but also tying us back to the real world. These forces of nature are real, backed by science, and make a vampire just a little more conceivable.
Running through Nosferatu is a love story, and much like Sunrise, although Nosferatu is a “symphony of horror,” there is also a bit of a love song underlying the vampire tale. It lends this story some heart, because these characters, like our protagonist Hutter, actually have something to live for.
Nosferatu most certainly is a symphony, and along with the expressionistic images, it uses title cards as well as excerpts from ship logs, books, and letters to tell the story. One such inter-title card from Count Orlock reads: Your wife has a lovely neck. Hutter has little idea what he means (or pretends not to), but we know, making it a rather funny but unnerving comment. There’s something about knowing what is undoubtedly going to happen and being powerless to stop it. For instance, when someone acknowledges they have two mosquitoes bites quite close together that spells trouble to the audience, but we can only watch and wait.
Because when Hutter first goes to offer Count Orlock a house we know it is bad news, to begin with, but it takes a long time for anything to actually happen. Orlock moves into the abandoned mansion across from Hutter and his wife, and that’s when the danger strikes close to home. There’s a madman in the hospital diverting attention, and Hutter winds up incapacitated so he is incapable of coming to the aid of his love. She is left vulnerable and the vampire has already proven what havoc he can wreak with the crew on a ship. Aside from Max Schreck’s frightening facade complete with pointy ears, bulging eyes, and menacing figures, the vampire literally appears and disappears into thin air. There is a haunting aura built around him because he is something supernatural, something that we cannot understand except through myth. I found myself getting tense waiting for something that I was not sure about. That was the exciting part. It’s not a blood and guts, monsters jumping out of closets, kind of horror. It’s not ridden with cliches either because it was the one creating its own mystique.
It’s hard to believe how much popular culture has been derivative from Stoker’s Dracula, much like Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, amidst all the vast works of Dracula and vampires, Nosferatu stands out. It represents the visual aesthetic of German Expression wonderfully, and it casts a long shadow. It’s hard not to, at the very least, admire its artistry and be taken aback by its legacy. In the realm of silent films, Nosferatu is a must, pure and simple. It doesn’t rely on bloodcurdling shrieks and screams, but the images begin to invade our consciousness. One seems fleeting and the other sticks with us.