Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror (1922)
By: Mr Intolerance on April 17, 2009  | 
DVD
Madman (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 4:3. English DD 5.1, English DD 2.0. 93 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: F.W. Murnau
Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav Van Wangenheim, Alexander Granach, Greta Schroeder
Screenplay: Henrik Galeen
Country: Germany
External Links
Purchase IMDB YouTube
When I was about 8 years old there used to be a TV show called Great Mysteries of the World, and in the opening credits, there was an image of the vampire from this film, Graf Orlok, rising from the neck of one of his victims, fangs bared and the image stayed with me forever. It scared the hell out of me back then, and it's one I still find unsettling even now.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror (or Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens, to give it its full original title) is Bram Stoker's novel Dracula in all but name. This is no idle claim; Florence Stoker, the author's wife, actively tried to have all copies of the film destroyed via a legal wrangle over copyright back in the twenties, when Prana (the company behind the film) went bankrupt. Obviously that didn't work (and thank whichever being you pray to for it), as I'm currently watching a lovingly restored version of this masterwork, prepared for us, appropriately enough, by the evil geniuses at the Wilhelm Friedrich Murnau Stiftung in Germany.

Thomas Hutter is a solicitor in the fictitious German town of Wisborg involved in a property deal with the mysterious Graf Orlok from Transylvania. Hutter's a bit on the clueless side, not having realised that his sinister gnome-like boss, Herr Knock (actually the Renfield character from Stoker's novel), is a total mental, positively barking mad, although as an audience, we're clued into this pretty early on, as we are to the fact that the boss is in cahoots with the nefarious Graf, having received from him a letter full of bizarre, not to mention sinister, occult symbols. He very obviously means no good.

It's worth mentioning something here about the acting. It's quite exaggerated, by modern standards. Remember that cinema was still in its relative infancy in 1922, and so many of the actors here are more used to the stage, rather than the screen, and the stage in 1922, at that. The naturalism we expect in the new millennium simply didn't exist back then, and so you do have to kind of prepare yourself for a more flamboyant, verging on the hyperbolic, style of 'delivery', and one that is clearly trying to compensate for the absence of audio dialogue. Meaning is made for us from what we can deduce from the on-screen action and the intertitles (NB: I watched this with the German intertitles, wanting to see the film as it was originally meant to be seen – I have enough German to be able to translate – if I pause the screen for a while…the commentary track came much later). The intertitles themselves are either the original ones from the restored print, or have been inserted from a safety print (that is a copy of the original not on highly flammable silver nitrate stock). This is as complete and authentic a print as you are likely to find, even down to the colour tinting of the black and white film (film-makers tinted the print to emphasise the response the audience were meant to have to the specific scene – icy blues for horror, warm golds for romance, etc) and the original 1922 score of the film, which I had never heard before in it's entirety. Because of the copyright situation with this film, there are loads of crappy versions amounting to little better than bootlegs with dubious modern soundtracks and modernised intertitles – this version of the film blows any other version you may have seen completely out of the water.

Oh, and re: the camerawork – I know that the rather static nature of the shots may prove annoying to some used to more MTV flavoured direction, but who cares what these 5 second attention-span gold-fish-brained morons think anyway? Ditto the only cuts between scenes being either a sharp cutaway or a slow dissolve through opening/closing the iris on the lens – deal with it. This is from the early years of cinema, you can't expect Zach Snyder-style jump-cut editing (thank Christ).

Aaaaaand, back to the story. Hutter is sent off to Transylvania by his barmy boss to secure the deal with Graf Orlok, who, if all goes well, will be living in the great big creepy warehouse across the road from Hutter. When will this guy's alarm bells start ringing?! His rather fey (if somewhat square-jawed) wife Ellen is somewhat underwhelmed by the news, being somewhat psychic, her reactions tell us she knows something is going to go amiss. Hutter however is full of optimism, seeing this as his big break, and the opportunity to make flipping great wadges of cash.

But after depositing Ellen in the care of his good friend Harding and Harding's sister, Hutter travels off to the Carpathians, and on entering the first tavern he comes to, makes that most ludicrous of social faux-pas' which we've all seen many times before in vampire films – he mentions he's on his way to see the bad guy. Uh-oh. The villagers react with fear and try to dissuade Hutter from going, but our sophisticated city boy isn't haven't any of it – it's 1838, why should he believe in superstitions in this day and age? Honestly, some people just can't be told. They claim there's a werewolf roaming the woods and convince Hutter to spend the night. If the thing we see looks like a wolf, then I look like Brad Pitt – it bears an uncanny resemblance to a hyena, if anything, and they're hardly endemic to Eastern Europe…

The villagers leave a book in Hutter's room, "Of Vampyres, terrible Phantoms and The Seven Deadly Sins" – he, of course, dismisses the whole thing as bunk, until he starts to be faced with inexplicable and eerie things. The link is established at this point of Nosferatu's link with rats and the Black Death – more of this later.

And so the horror begins – Hutter's coachmen won't take him to Orlok's castle, so he is met by a sinister coachman who rides at breakneck speeds through some primitive special effects (I honestly do wonder what an audience from 1922 made of all this – the sped up motion, the negative photography) to Orlok's admittedly quite creepy bat-bedecked mountain-top castle.

Enter: Graf Orlok. A creepier looking vampire you couldn't hope to find, especially given the special effects of the day. A bug-eyed, beetle-browed, hook-nosed, pointy-eared, rat fanged, dagger-clawed and emaciated villain, Schreck is one of the silver screen's most memorable vampires, and bad-guys generally. Whereas in Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, the Count is played by the uber-suave (if unintentionally hilariously accented) Gary Oldman, infusing a romantic angle to Stoker's original text that was never there in the first place, here, we get the concentrated malice and evil of the book in a form that is repellent in the extreme. I know you shouldn't judge a book by it's cover, but this isn't even an appearance a mother could love. Everything about this character radiates wrongness, even down to the spidery movements – this is a natural predator, inimical to the human race. He doesn't even look human from the get-go – you cannot sympathise with Graf Orlok in any way shape or form. This is a triumph of characterisation.

Yeah, sure, we've probably all got our favourite vampire actors (mine is Christopher Lee), but this one is a pretty bloody hard act to follow, considering that not a great deal of make up or prosthesis had to be added to Schreck's rough head – a Michael Berryman for the 1920s! And considering that unimaginative directors have been ripping the look off since (Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot, anyone?), even to this day (hello, 30 Days of Night), I think that speaks volumes about the strength of the imagery on display.

While at dinner (which Orlok does not partake in), Hutter unwittingly slices his thumb. Orlok takes a keen interest in the "precious blood", trying to suck it from Hutter's wound – this is finally the moment when the alarm bells start to ring. When your host is trying to suck blood from your thumb, something isn't quite right, and Hutter starts to click to this. However, in the fresh light of day, the dumb schmuck still puts his two new neck puncture wounds down to mosquitos. What a dolt.

Hutter manages to get a letter away to Ellen via a local passing rustic, and that night concludes the deal with Orlok for the sale of the house opposite his own. Orlok gets a gander at a cameo of Ellen and seems quite smitten with her neck (the scene was lifted pretty directly in Coppola's version of the tale, although not as obviously played for laughs). Again Hutter's warning bells go off, but they must be somehow muffled… But as Hutter is then subject to a nocturnal visit by the Graf, he gets a bit more of a feeling that peril is imminent. And that's about the point he realises two things: he's a prisoner in the castle, and a host who sleeps in a coffin is probably not going to be winning any awards for Christian hospitality. Orlok has loaded up some coffins with his native earth, and has fucked off to Wisborg, presumably to have his wicked way with Ellen, leaving Hutter trapped.

Orlok is on the schooner Empusa, making his way to Wisborg (I'm still not all that clear how you get to Germany from land-locked Transylvania via the high seas, but there you go – it would, however be much quicker to go via land, rather than sail all the way around the Continent) when we start seeing his links to the rats and the Plague. The vampire is an unclean thing generally, and brings with it things that are themselves unclean. Woe betide the sailors once the boat sets sail, isolated and adrift. It's on the boat where we get to see one of the film's iconic sequences – I won't go any further; watch it and revel in it.

At this point we are introduced to Professor Bulmer (our Van Helsing character) who is teaching his students about the "mysterious workings of nature". Why he's doing so in a dressing gown eludes me. At the same time Knock has become even more eccentric, committed to an asylum and eating bugs, screaming, "Blood is life! Blood is life!" Hutter has escaped and has been hospitalised. The action picks up pace as the Empusa comes to town laden with a rather morbid cargo. The third act of the film (it is quite literally broken up via the intertitles into separate acts) doesn't fool about, trying to amp up the pace and the sense of tension, pulling all of the plot strands together – as indeed the novel does in its break-neck race to the end. Hutter is trying to return home before the Graf, Orlok is racing to Wisborg leaving the Plague in the wake of his ship of death, Ellen is starting to manifest strange somnambulistic behaviour, Bulmer's introduction to the story becomes more central to the plot, the plague hits Wisborg as Orlok arrives, Knock escapes from the asylum and goes on a rampage, Ellen starts to realise how she can possibly solve the terrible secret of what's happening to the town, and now you have to go and watch the rest of it yourself, you lazy sods.

The set pieces are memorable, to say the very least – Hutter's sojourns in the castle with Orlok, the events on the Empusa (I wish I could tell you more – it's my favourite part of the film – but it would raise some unforgivable spoilers for those who don't know it), the climactic showdown (watch for the breathtakingly inventive use of shadow – actually, the chiaroscuro – the interplay between light and dark – is used masterfully throughout the entire film, equalled only by Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. This is genius stuff – for such an early film the use of the camera , this really set a pretty high bar for later directors to follow. That fact that Coppola tried to ape the same style some 70 years later for his riff on the Dracula tale says a fair bit to me about Murnau's talents as a director.

The 5 act structure of Nosferatu actually mirrors that of a Shakespearean tragedy: Act 1 – Orientation (setting the scene and introducing the characters and the situation); Act 2: Complication (something quite out of the ordinary happens, plunging our characters into the unusual); Act 3: Confrontation (the hero and villain go head-to-head – although not necessarily in a physical fashion); Act 4: Counterstroke (the villain gains the ascendancy), Act 5: Catastrophe (do I need to spell out what that means?) – and I honestly believe it packs the punch of such the texts I'm comparing it to. This bastard has some serious gravity behind it. This movie is the goods. The grandfather of all vampire films, and still quite a subversive one, if you want to look at gender roles and sexuality (born of its origins under the Weimar Regime in Germany at the time? Perhaps), Nosferatu is a film light years ahead of its time. God knows the Nazis condemned and vilified it as "Entartete Kunst" – degenerate art – and that's reason enough to love it – fuck those Nazi bastards, the ignorant cocks).

Its troublesome relationship with the parent text? That's an iffy one. If you're looking for the psycho-sexual tension that powers Stoker's novel, well, it's kind of there, but in a different way. The character of Dracula, and more importantly Lucy, are sexualised beings, but for different purposes. Lucy is given a sexual nature in order to prove that women as being allowed to be promiscuous is wrong. Have sex and you become diseased would appear to be the order of the day – you've been infected by the villainous foreigner, represented by Dracula, from a xenophobic Victorian perspective. I get the impression that Dracula is meant to play up to the contemporary fears of the flower of Victorian womanhood (and Lucy is nothing, if not that) being seduced by the lesser being, thus sullying the English gene pool. Here the fear is different. If Orlok represents a sexual being (and if you wanted to get all Freudian, he certainly looks like a walking erection – although not mine, I hasten to add!), it's not approached with the same loathing of cross-racial breeding, more a fear of rape. Sex and death are inextricably linked in Nosferatu, and embodied in the figure of Orlok. Orlok is a kind of sexual omnivore – yes, he desires Ellen, but it would appear that he's pretty keen on Hutter, too, who he attacks (penetrates) twice. Orlok is definitely a sexual predator, but it is the act that defines him, not his attempts to undermine the native male's rights to the native female.

Add to that the fact that Henrik Galeen has taken an extraordinarily free-wheeling approach to his source material – as with most attempts at adapting the Dracula story, many of the major players are left out or condensed into one figure; Holmwood, Seward and Quincey being the obvious figures to examine here, and Ellen appears to be a curious melange of randy Lucy and prim school-marm Mina – there would seem to be a deliberate agenda in the composition of this particular script. The epistolary structure is largely missing, with the exception of the occasional intertitle narration (presumably from Bulmer, post-facto) and the extracts from the book Hutter finds at the inn, and of curse Hutter's letter to Ellen and the Captain's log. These are plot devices and nothing more. The multi-layered narrative style (performed through various 'new' technologies) Stoker went to great length to achieve have been largely jettisoned – possibly due to the fact that they were no longer the novelties (in some regards) they were in his day. The whole theme of science versus religion/superstition is also ditched for the better part – by the 1920s, the nascent ideas of technology taking over from these outmoded schools of thought from the 1890s had become passé. If you want to look at Stoker's novel objectively, Dracula is killed by a series of telegrams and a railway timetable. Stakes and crucifixes and garlic had bugger all to do with it. This is a largely Modernist take on the story – even down to the absence of a traditional hero, the inefficacious nature of authority figures, the death of Empire, the absence of any form of romanticism – Nosferatu is definitely a product of its time, a Weimar nightmare composed in a Germany that was fiddling while Rome burned. There's a secularism here that denies any form of sectarian belief – like Nietzsche famously said over 30 years before – "God is dead". Cast your mind back to the novel – all that Catholic paraphernalia Van Helsing carts about is null and void in this telling of the tale.

The weird part about that is that many of the major players involved in the composition of this film were actually involved in magic – that trend of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – some even in-touch with that grand old fraud Aleisteir Crowley. Even the name of the film company (Prana) had a magical root – it means "force of life". So the secular card might have been played ironically (although I doubt it – these people can never look at their 'beliefs' in an objective fashion), or perhaps the whole film was an exploitative attempt to cash in on a fashionable and marketable trend, and popularise it. When you consider that large numbers of Europe's intelligentsia were involved with such silliness as the Gnostics, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, the Golden Dawn, the Astra Argentum, or Blavatsky and all of her twaddle (Bulmer is a Paracelsian in the film), maybe it isn't so difficult to believe.

Notions of reality and unreality are played with to a great extent in Nosferatu. Waking and dreaming both seem to be states that can place you in a great deal of danger or uncertainty. While in Orlok's castle, Hutter's consciousness and his memory take a severe beating – he is somehow able to fall back into positively enviable depths of self denial regarding his experiences. Again in terms of Modernism, the sense of alienation not only from the world or others (and let's face it, Hutter knows fuck all about his wife), but alienation from the self – here in the form of self-delusion – is pronounced, and disturbing. If you can't even trust and/or know yourself, who else is there? Thank you Mr Freud for fucking with our perceptions of contentment… Ellen also features these ideas of self-alienation, embodied in her sleep-walking, for one thing – she has lost her true sense of self. Will the real Ellen please stand up? What's that? You can't because you're under the sway of a more powerful psyche? Ooops. I guess vampirism works on more than one level.

The more onionskin layers of this film you peel back, the more fascinating it gets. There are depths I can find in it now that I never could when I first saw it 20 years ago on a VHS copy which looked like the film had been taken for a scrape around a car-park before being kicked into my VCR with an iron boot.

Even if you have seen this film before, I highly recommend your watching this version. You won't get a more authentic Nosferatu viewing experience, unless Dr Who asked you to go for a spin in the TARDIS back to Berlin, 1922. The amazingly restored image, the tinting, the original German and English intertitles, the original Hans Erdmann score (in this instance conducted by Berndt Heller) – this is a Nosferatu completist's dream.

A post-script: this film was re-made by German auteur director Werner Herzog in 1979 as Nosferatu: Phantom das Nacht, starring Klaus Kinski as Orlok, Bruno Ganz as Hutter and Isabelle Adjani as Ellen. With a stellar cast like that and Herzog at the helm, you can imagine how brilliant the end result was – that rarest of things: a re-make that is as every bit as good as the original, and which even managed to add something new and different to it without being an affront to Murnau's original. Definitely worth your while seeking it out, too.

Post-post script: E. Elias Merhige made a film about the filming of Nosferatu called The Shadow of the Vampire (2000) starring Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck, along with Cary Elwes as Murnau and Eddie Izzard as Gunter Van Wangenheim, which is worth a look, although it does get a bit histrionic in its claims that maybe Schreck wasn't all that he seemed (in reality he was however a bit of a figure of mystery – a method actor with an experimental troupe, Nosferatu was Schreck's only real role that we know of – he seemed to come from nowhere, and seemed to return to that obscurity almost as quickly. His surname in German translates as "fright," "shock" or "terror", depending on who translates it, which does seem a bit fortuitous. It's not even really sure if the same actor played the role of Orlok for the entire duration of the film; watch it and see – there are certainly some scenes where you could be forgiven for thinking it wasn't Schreck behind the fangs…).
Video
The print is a brand-spanking-new digitally restored one with the intertitles being newly translated, and restored to their original look. The colour tinting that audiences would have seen in the twenties is also restored, adding further depth to the tale. Seriously, the restoration job here removes nearly all of the artefacts and imperfections you might have seen in previous prints of Nosferatu. I'm not saying it looks like it was shot yesterday, but I'm saying that it does look incredible given the fact that at time of writing this review, it's 86 years old. The people responsible for this restoration should all be given medals, a big basket of stuff and a holiday in the countryside for services to the powers of good.

Subtitles are avaialble in either yellow or white.
Audio
Well, it's a musical score, isn't it? That said, it's the first time I've heard Hans Ermann's original 1922 score (it's normally been done with some contemporary composer's take on what the score might have been like, or some random, grab-bag assortment of dark classical faves – think Universal's adherence to Swan Lake on Frankenstein and The Mummy). This is the way the film was meant to be heard, which merely adds to its awesomeness. Having it in 5.1 is just the icing on the cake.
Extra Features
Shit yeah, dude. There's an audio commentary by Saige Walton (a lecturer in Cinema Studies at the University of Melbourne), and Martyn Peddler, a writer and cultural critic (not too sure what qualifies you to be the latter of those two 'professions'), two featurettes, The Language of Shadows: The Early Years and Nosferatu (a doco about Murnau's early years – obviously – from his childhood through to the making of this film, and an interesting tale it is, too) , and Nosferatu: An Historic Film meets Digital Restoration (and while I'm not a techno-phile, the effort and work that went into bringing this film up to the frankly highly impressive standard on display is worth a look; if anything, I would've liked to have seen more of this). There's also some archival excerpts, from a range of Murnau's other still extant films (his first five never made it, being victims of their own silver nitrate medium – so here we get bits from Journey Into The Night, The Haunted Castle, Phantom, The Finances of the Grand Duke, The Last Laugh, Tartuffe, Faust and Tabu), an image gallery, Madman Director's Suite trailers for Umberto D, Five Graves to Cairo, The Blue Angel and Tokyo Story – most of which didn't really interest me all that much) and a booklet including an excerpt from the Bram Stoker novel Dracula (this can be compared with the similar section of the film as a stand-alone scene accessible from the menu on disc 2), and an essay on Nosferatu by lecturer in English Literary Studies Peter Otto. The slip case this double disc comes in is pretty damn sweet too. Oh, and may I point out that this is more in the way of Extras than is identified on the back of the video cover – surely Madman are doing themselves a disservice in not giving the full drum in their own promotional material?
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror is one of the most iconic horror films of all time. It's eerie, oneiric and radiates a kind of atmosphere that's hard to pin down. A subtle sense of dread is the best way I could think of to describe it. This is the kind of film that the post-Saw or August Underground audience might find dull or vapid, but to the true horror connoisseur, this is one of the points where the whole shebang starts. If you're a true fan of horror, and want to find out where it all began, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror is a pretty bloody essential place to start.

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