3 out of 5
Directed by: F.W. Murnau
I realize I should qualify this review by it being done from a modern POV: I can do my best to appreciate how a film like Nosferatu would have impacted me if viewed in 1920, when I was but a wee lad of 102 years of age, but my limited imagination in that regard is not, I don’t think, the sole reason behind my three star rating. This is not my first silent film, or my first classic, and both require some viewing filters: some of the above (time and place), and some consideration for what we “knew,” technically, at this point in terms of film construction.
And that’s where I get a bit caught up with Nosferatu, as, though it’s filled with some absolutely stirring frames and fantastic lighting – and Max Schreck’s Count Orlok forever exists in this creepy realm of being on the verge of comical, but skewing towards unhinged, i.e. a great horror villain – F.W. Murnau’s film “language” feels stunted; not quite on par with movies of the era. Perhaps owing to a script that was guided by source material not rightly owned by the studio, or that the background of the studio / production was further steered by weird occult interests, the movie often has the forced feel of some adaptations – of going through the motions. It’s the discrepancy of the vampiric Orlok seemingly conducting his business with Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) – a real estate man there to sell him on some property during daylight hours – or that Orlok’s castle is both hard to get to and avoided, but then easily escapable and visited by the mail carrier.
So some of the details feel very, very right, but the big picture is often a bit underwhelming, unassisted by a pace that moves in hiccups, especially during the time Hutton is at the castle.
But: this is the classic Dracula tale, minus some elements (Harker) and plus others (tying Orlok’s appearance to the plague), and there is both an appreciable undercurrent of “off”ness that very much works, as well as the aforementioned beauty of many shots, achieved in on-location settings; Murnau definitely had an eye for tableau.
Schreck is always fascinating; some of the odds and ends characters are amusingly overdone with wild hair and costume. Von Wangenheim isn’t the most compelling lead, unfortunately, and his actual emotions seem a step behind his pantomime, but his wife, played by Greta Schröder – though relegated wholly to a lovestruck damsel role – looks appreciably distraught throughout.
From a film education perspective, and by dint of being First in the Dracula pile, yes, Nosferatu is absolutely required viewing. In terms of just watching it as a movie – placing it alongside films of the era – I’m maybe less convinced of its status, though it still entertains with its visuals, tone, and Schreck’s performance.