Just to say the word ‘Nosferatu’ can send a shiver down your spine. Its pronunciation is an embodiment of evil that conjures images of a terrifying monster who lurks in the shadows and feasts on your blood. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, released in 1922, remains a testament of the power of Germany’s Expressionist era; it’s a haunting masterpiece that is as chilling an experience today as it was on first release.
Yet this cinematic masterpiece was almost lost to the world. An unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s literary classic Dracula, it was dismissed by Stoker’s widow as nothing more than a rip-off and was ordered by the courts to be destroyed. Mercifully, one print survived to forever document this masterly tale of horror that gives great depth to the influence of Expressionist cinema.
The piercing contrast between light and dark, that is distinctive to the mise-en-scene of Expressionism, creates an inescapably haunting tone. Count Orlok, the Dracula of the piece, lives in the shadows; a disquieting darkness from which we are convinced there is no escape. Light and darkness are continuously utilized to build tension; the film’s iconic scene, of Orlok climbing to the room of our hero Thomas Hutter, is shown as a shadowy silhouette on a bright background. The terror is in the knowledge of what is about to happen, the spine-tingling score creeping up on us like the vampire himself.
Central to all of this, of course, is Max Schreck’s iconic performance. His overemphasized makeup, skeletal figure and emotionless expressions merge to create an unrelentingly sinister onscreen presence that will initially terrify and continually haunt. Director F.W. Murnau’s assured storytelling forms an effective bond between audience and protagonist, which enhances the battle between good an evil that is central to his tale. His use of eerie locations, particularly Orlok’s deserted castle in the mountains, form an integral part of the film’s gothic feel. Together, all these elements merge to create a film that preys on our darkest fears; a literal Symphony of Horror that will plague your mind long after it’s over.
To dismiss Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, released in 1979, as nothing more than a remake is a great disservice to the visionary German auteur. Herzog has said that he considers Murnau to be Germany’s greatest director and while his film follows the same narrative as the silent original, Herzog’s film draws further on Stoker’s source material.
Like Murnau’s original, it is a film driven by its central performance. Klaus Kinski masterly makes the role of Nosferatu his own. While visually paying respect to Schreck’s performance, the actor uses his exceptional prowess to develop the character. Kinski’s performance is menacing, his blood red lips and protruding fangs making him a startling presence from which you cannot escape. Yet his lust for Lucy, our hero’s lady, gives him a vulnerability that brings an emotional human depth to the final scene of sacrifice and death.
The horror in Herzog’s film comes from a finely crafted dread, which builds throughout the story. His opening montage of decaying corpses, set to the eerie tones of a medieval choir, is deeply affecting; Herzog’s tale is one rooted in death. The high-angle shots of multiple coffins being carried through Wismar Square shows the unforgiving power of Dracula, his curse bringing an inescapable plague to the town. Once again, the terror is in our knowledge of what has happened, the deaths more effective for never being shown.
Of course, this being Herzog, Nosferatu the Vampyre isn’t wholly a tale of horror and themes distinctive to the director can be seen throughout. A scene of frustrated town councilors unable to arrest Dr. Van Helsing because most members of authority have been killed humorously highlights the ridiculousness of some bureaucracy.
It’s lavishly shot as well; with the great sweeping landscapes, photographed by Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein, that Bruno Ganz’s Jonathan Harker travels by on his journey to Dracula’s castle adding to the film’s ever-growing dread. The misty mountains and starkly lit passageways, which form the front path to Dracula’s castle, accentuate the horror of darkness in a way similar to Murnau. The lack of dialogue adds to our fear, the growing trepidation visible in Harker’s wide eyes.
Both Murnau and Herzog have created films that encompass both the great and the terrifying aspects of gothic horror. If one were asked to pick, Murnau’s original would be the definitive picture; a gloriously terrifying slice of cinematic history that helped to write the horror rulebook. Central to this opening month of the BFI’s Gothic season, both Murnau & Herzog’s films continue to stand the test of time; grabbing you by the throat and biting down hard.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror ★★★★★
Nosferatu The Vampyre ★★★★★
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is released on Blu-Ray on Nov. 16th, while Nosferatu The Vampyre plays at the BFI Southbank until the end of November.