Watching Nosferatu is like standing in the same room as death itself. It’s a brooding chamber piece of gothic ruminations and occult imagery, of the flickering light of the world waging a losing battle against the overwhelming darkness. Tod Browning’s Dracula may be the more immediately recognized of the two earliest vampire features but it is Murnau’s silent masterpiece to which the entire genre—and then some—owes its existence. Modern vampire culture, driven in large part by Anne Rice fans and their routinely fetishistic attractions toward the creatures of the night, is more superficially sexy than soulful, with an emphasis on the opportunities afforded by an eternal life and the fine line between death and ecstasy. Although not without these qualities in at least an implicit fashion, Nosferatu strips away anything that might possibly romanticize its titular character or the events that surround him: It bears witness to the festering rot of the soul, lingering on that which emanates from the dark corners of the world.
Legal troubles almost saw to the destruction of the film’s prints. Unofficially adapted from Bram Stoker’s original novel Dracula, the screenplay blatantly copies the storyline practically step for step, changing only names and locations so as to avoid copyright issues, an effort unsuccessful in swaying Stoker’s widow from pursuing legal action (fortunately, copies were preserved despite the ruling of the courts). Count Orlock, as played by the inimitable Max Schreck (literal translation: “maximum terror”), seems to embody death itself as it exists for all of mankind, simultaneously bringing in his wake a plague that knows not the limits of gender, class, or beauty. That he requires blood to sustain his torturous existence and that people will fall prey to his thirst are givens here; Murnau turns the story on its head, practically converting the subtexts into the central narrative. Orlock, more rat than human, only beckons to his bloodthirsty cravings out of primal, instinctive need, like a junkie looking for the next fix, regardless of how much it prolongs their suffering. Truly, there are things worse than death.
Pick any one of Murnau’s heralded silent works and you may be looking at the pinnacle of the era, though it’s no disgrace to this most culturally recognized of his films (the titular character has even shown up on SpongeBob SquarePants) that it might rank beneath the likes of Faust and Sunrise. Like those later works, Nosferatu strikes primarily through the unrestrained potency of its now-iconic imagery, the result of a filmmaker who recognized the singularly visual nature of his medium and used it to the fullest extent, avoided the use of intertitles as much as possible so as not to hinder the emotional flow capable only through uninterrupted montage. The opening shot of a church steeple overlooking the German town of Bremen suggests an external witness to the following events (not unlike the wager between heaven and hell that frames the narrative of Faust).
The naïve Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim, setting the standard for many an estate agent to come) has received an offer he can’t refuse: travel to the Carpathian mountains to do business with the reclusive Count Dracula, who wishes to purchase a home in Bremen. Hutter remains willfully ignorant toward local superstitions and warnings amid his travels, a child who fails to comprehend death even as it confronts him head-on. Wangernheim’s performance is pure cheeseball, though it is a necessary component not only to the inanity of the character but as a stark contrast to his beloved wife Ellen (Greta Schröder, one of the unsung beauties of the silent screen), whose cognitive awareness of the evil in her midst ultimately forces on her the role of the tragic hero; it is only she who recognizes the true nature of the vampire, and who realizes that only by giving in to death, can it be overcome.
Center stage, though, is Nosferatu himself. Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari‘s Cesare, he is expressionism manifest, though not as a dreamlike somnambulist but as humanity warped by a deathly rancor. The rumors that suggest that Schreck’s effectiveness as an actor is the result of his actually having been a vampire (a notion explored in the simultaneously reverent and screwy Shadow of the Vampire) are truly quite silly, though they certainly add to the eeriness of the images unraveling on-screen. Hunched over with a rigid posture and exhibiting pointy ears, centrally located fangs, and claw-like hands, Schreck utilizes the ugliness of these features to harrowing effect, conveying what amounts to humanity long since past any ability to recognize himself, now a creature of habit capable of experiencing only the most wretched of emotions. The cinema has rarely born witness to thesping so exquisitely combined with makeup artistry; only The Fly‘s Jeff Goldblum comes to mind as superior in such soul-wrenching expression.
Murnau captures Nosferatu as a ghostly form barely present in the flesh: one sequence during Hutter’s journey uses the negative of the original shot to incredible effect, suggesting a world of evil spirits just lurking beyond the veil of the flesh, while a shot in which Nosferatu all but leaps out of his coffin still chills today. The dreamlike, ethereal quality of these images allows their accruing potency to continue long after the film itself has completed, though the payoff of the third act climax and denouement are respectively forceful and majestic in their own right. A stunning montage of imminent doom followed by victory over the dark forces of the earth, these sequences make the most notable use of Murnau’s signature touches; Nosferatu’s shadow stalks Ellen outside her bedroom door, the silhouette of his hand clutching her heart before he goes in for the kill. Only moments later does the morning sunlight reduce the tragic monster to a puff of smoke, but it is the final shot—that of his Carpathian castle now lying in ruins—that epitomizes evil overcome. One of the preeminent firsts in all of cinema, Nosferatu may be the greatest vampire film ever made, rivaled in this viewer’s mind only by Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s underrated Vampyr. Despite these competitors, though, it’s difficult not to look at their successor and think: man, it’s all downhill from here.