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NOSFERATU

   

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Alexander Granach, Greta Schroeder
Director:  F. W. Murnau
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Stereo
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  Commentary Track, Photo Gallery, Nosferatu Tour
Length:  81 Minutes
Release Date:  January 2, 2001

Film ****

F. W. Murnau's silent classic Nosferatu has been called many things, from the first genuine horror movie to the most important and influential film in the history of German cinema (the latter according to Werner Herzog).  There certainly is truth in both statements.  By loosely adapting Bram Stoker's Dracula into a purely cinematic retelling, using all the available tools of film, theatre and the popular expressionistic art form, Murnau created a movie of unforgettable visuals and genuine creepiness…you may not feel scared watching the film itself, but you may just be surprised at how many images from the movie linger with you long after you've finished.

Unlike the later famed Hollywood talkie version of Dracula, Murnau does not give us in Max Schreck a vampire oozing with sensual appeal.  Instead, Count Orlok is barely human:  a hairy, spindly, bald monster with protruding front teeth like a rodent's rather than fangs.  As he brings more and more death over the course of the story, he becomes even LESS human in appearance.  His fingers and claws continue to grow long, thin and jagged and his ears more long and pointed until he is truly an absolute horror to behold.

The parts of the original novel that Murnau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen instinctively touched upon were the vampire as a symbol of disease and corrupt economics.  Orlok brings death wherever he goes, but he also brings money, and his attempts to buy land in Germany and set up house for his nefarious deeds could easily be seen as indicative of the paranoia in Stoker's day (and to a certain degree, Murnau's day and our day) of foreigners infiltrating a country's economy at the expense of its citizens.

By making Orlok rodent like and thoroughly unattractive, he is also a symbol of the plague that ripped through Europe and wiped out countless minions.  Orlok does not bring satisfaction or sexual gratification with his work…death, and only death, is his legacy.

Those familiar with the Stoker novel will recognize the story line, but also note that the character's names were all changed.  It turns out, Murnau and crew never obtained the legal rights to make the movie, and Stoker's estate sued to have every print of Nosferatu destroyed.  Thankfully, they were unsuccessful.

Because of the familiar story line, it is easier to slip into (and for me to discuss) the film from a strictly visual standpoint.  Expressionism was a form that rejected the impartial reality of the former movement of impressionism.  The new artists were not interested in objective truth, but rather, subjective emotion.  They captured their subjects with a dramatic flair, often using exaggerated colors and lines, grotesque distortions and a generally unrealistic approach.  The burgeoning expressionist movement coincided with the development of film into an art form, and some of the early German works like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis and this one are still amongst the most influential cinema landmarks in terms of visual construction.

Note how the early images of the film are shot realistically, up until the point that Hutter ventures into Transylvania to meet with Orlok and begin the proceedings to bring him into Germany.  Suddenly, the look of the film begins to change.  The landscapes no longer look like realistic captures, but sharp, jagged realms of possibility.  The phantom coach ride was presented with the film's negative unexposed, leading to a strange visual scheme made even more unsettling by Murnau's use of a white coach and driver.  In negative form, they appeared as black, their color in other naturalistic shots, which lends a something's-wrong dimension that you might not be able to place at first.  And, as mentioned, the count himself is a living breathing expressionist form, often appearing and disappearing out of the center of the movie screen and framed by distinct archways.  These create some of the film's most memorable images, including Orlock's spidery walk in front of the ‘web' of ropes on the ship whose crew he murders, his rise from the coffin, and the distinct play of light and shadow that came to define expressionist filmmaking.

Murnau's interpretation of Orlok lent to a second great vampire image, in fact.  The most famous would be the devilishly handsome one of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee.  The second would be the balding, animalistic Orlok variety, that would surface in films like Salem's Lot. 

Without gore, Nosferatu manages to remain one of the most significant entries of the horror genre, relying instead on atmosphere and unsettling images to convey “a symphony of horror”.  It's influential look can still be felt in modern films like Dark City and others, and remains one of the most important of film's surviving early works. 

Video ***

I owned Image's original presentation of Nosferatu, and was keen to make a comparison of it to this newly remastered version.  The improvement is quite noticeable, and very welcome.  Though not a lot was (or possibly could be) done about the prints aging artifacts, such as scratches and dirt, the images are a great deal sharper and cleaner than the previous DVD—or for that matter, any version I've seen before.  An early high shot reveals people moving in the street in the distance, which I had never noticed before.  Lines are much more distinct and crisp.  The original color tinting is intact, and serves as an important part of Murnau's vision.  This may be as good as we can expect this movie to look. 

Audio ***

The one audio improvement over the previous release is a newly recorded 5.0 soundtrack by the Silent Orchestra.  It's a strange but effective listen, with strong clarity and dynamic range, and I found it a good enhancement to the film's visual.  Timothy Howard's stereo organ score is also included, which is also a fine listen for the silent film purists, as it is a more traditional sounding score with allusions to known European compositions. 

Features ***

The highlight of the extras is a full length commentary by Lokke Heiss, who is quite knowledgeable about German expressionist cinema and the history of this film—a real treat for students.  There is also a special text/photo/video tour of the locations of Nosferatu, plus a photo gallery of publicity posters and stills for the film.  To top it off, the menus feature film clips with sound.

Summary:

Nosferatu is a must own for any serious film student.  To watch it is to see not only a visual masterpiece, but to witness the birth of some of cinema's most significant vocabulary addenda.  This DVD is a definite improvement over Image's previous release, and makes for a great addition to any movie lover's library.