A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922)

As Bram Stoker first described him, Count Dracula was by no means hideous. Creepy, yes, but with his long white mustache, his aquiline nose, and his "extraordinary pallor," he must have been at least striking to see. Most of the incarnations of Count Dracula on screen have been more or less attractive men: Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Frank Langella, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, among many others. And lately, since Anne Rice's novels and Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Angel (David Boreanaz) and Spike (James Marsters), the tendency has been to portray vampires as hot young dudes like the ones seen on the CW's The Vampire Diaries and The Originals. Vampires, it seems, have been getting more human. But not the very first version of Dracula portrayed on screen: With his steady glare, his beaky nose, his batlike ears, his long taloned fingers, his implacable stiff-legged gait, and his posture suggestive of someone who has been crammed for a long time into a coffin, Max Schreck's Count Orlok (the name has been changed to protect the studio, which it didn't) is decidedly non-human. He's a mutant, perhaps, or an alien. He is also not sexy, which is something of a paradox because vampirism, with its night prowling and exchange of fluids, is all about sex -- or the fear of it. And yet this is probably the greatest film version of Dracula, even allowing for the fact that it's a ripoff, designed to allow the producers Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau to avoid having to pay the Stoker estate for the rights. They were sued, and according to the terms of the settlement all prints of the film were supposed to be destroyed. The studio went out of business, but Nosferatu was undead -- enough copies survived that it could be pieced together for posterity. Undead, but not undated: Some of the opening scenes involving Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), the novel's Harker, are a bit laughable given the actor's puppyish grin, and the character of Knock (Alexander Granach), the novel's Renfield, is wildly over-the-top. But Murnau knew how to create atmosphere, and he keeps the action grounded in plausibility by using real locations and natural settings. The scene in which a long procession of coffins filled with plague victims moves down a street (actually in Lübeck) is haunting. But most of all, it's Schreck's uncanny performance that makes Nosferatu still able to stalk through dreams after more than 90 years.