Germany 1922

dir. F W Murnau

approx 63m

The screen’s first crack at the Dracula story, Nosferatu is more interesting these days for historical rather than dramatic reasons. While undoubtedly impressive on first release, the picture will now seem laughably crude and broad to most modern viewers, resulting in a very long 63 minutes. Nevertheless, Max Schreck’s bizarrely creepy Count Orlok (the Dracula equivalent) retains his power to shock and unnerve – the movie operates on a higher level whenever he’s on screen, but unfortunately we get rather more of the unbearably over-the-top Gustav Von Wagenheim as romantic lead Jonathan Hutter. An estate agent, he’s sent by his sinister boss Knock to Transylvania to close a deal with the mysterious count, only for Orlok to head back to Hutter’s home on the German coast in search of his virginal bride.

It’s the basic Dracula story, but Murnau seems unwilling – or unable? – to tell his simple story in cinematic terms, i.e. images. Instead, we get endless shots of gothic-script text detailing exactly what’s going on, to the extent that viewers may end up wondering whether they are watching a film or reading a book. Whatever tension the film manages to build up – and there are effective sequences, many of them relying on primitive stop-motion effects as the otherworldly Orlok goes about his evil business – it’s dissipated by the endless reliance on redundant cutaways, either to the text or to subsidiary, peripheral goings-on.

The technical shortcomings of the film also render a central plot point ridiculous – the climax sees Orlok destroyed by exposure to daylight, but how does this square with the numerous preceding scenes in which he walks around in the sunshine with no ill-effects? Nosferatu is worth a look, but Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake is superior in just about every regard – as are Jim Shepard’s Murnau novel, Nosferatu in Love, and Elias Merhige’s fanciful version of the movie’s creation, Shadow of the Vampire.