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Murnau's Magic

You have to admit there is something special about a film that remains as terrifyingly effective today as it was 80 years ago.

Murnau, a pioneering member of the German Expressionist movement creates a dreamlike world that draws its strength from the real world. Unlike his contemporaries, Murnau took his camera to locations depicted in the story. He then transforms those locations into expressions of his characters.

The story begins in the garden of a real estate agent, Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) and his wife Ellen (Greta Schroeder). Their happy marriage is about to be transformed by Hutter's journey through the Land of Phantoms to the castle of the mysterious Count Orlock (Max Schreck).

Hutter is directed to sell the Count an abandoned building across from his own home. This direction comes from his boss; an odd fellow named Knock (Alexander Granach). We learn that Knock can read the strange hieroglyphic writing of Orlock. And as the story unfolds Knock betrays a remote psychic connection with the Count.

Murnau intercuts negatives and uses time warping camera techniques to transfer a simple forest road into a truly bizarre land of phantoms. Hutter's first exposure to Orlock's otherworldly power comes as Hutter arrives at the castle and the doors open by themselves.

The stark interiors of Count Orlock's castle are used to great effect in Murnau's striking image compositions. The Moorish archways frame Orlock and Hutter while the background alternates with bands of light and dark. The morning after the first attack, Hutter stumbles across a jumble of black and white tiles and descends a rickety winding outside staircase to find Count Orlock sleeping in his coffin. Hutter is more than a bit dazed and confused. Murnau's expert use of film technique never seems forced and always adds to the mystic quality of his mysterious Count.

Murnau lets us fill in some of the blanks. The dream-like quality is built on fades and superimposed images. He even uses simple cuts to show the attack on Hutter and Ellen's simultaneous telepathic connection to the event. Murnau's framing and the cinematography of Fritz Wagner give focus to the story. Albin Grau's imaginative art direction gives us scenes like the one where Ellen is waiting on the beach for Hutter's return. She is surrounded by sand dunes covered with iron crucifixes. Is this to say that the sea as giver of life can also give life to the dead?

While Murnau's contemporaries were building lavish sets for their films, Murnau took his camera and crew on location. This was very rare for the time. So the castle, the towns, and the landscapes are real. Murnau also used non-theatrical actors as extras. This gives an air of authenticity as he mixes his actors with real people playing themselves. The subject itself was frightening enough to elicit emotions that were sometimes more genuine than those of his "real" actors. Compare the fear in the older townswomen with the hamming acting of Gustav von Wangenheim if you want an example.

Although not 'horror' by today's bloody, gory standards, Nosferatu is a psychic thriller. The attack sequences have a frenetic quality from the intercutting and a graceful sensuality at the same time. The Silent Orchestra score on the 2001 releases from Kino and Image Entertainment unifies these qualities. (Note: Kino issued a new print of Nosferatu in August of 2002 with another new score.)

A classic scene that stands out in everyone's memory is the scene on the ship where Orlock seems to be ejected upright from his coffin. While it appears very obvious to us, this scene was probably very frightening to audiences in the 1920's.

Murnau gives us a world filled with real people in unreal situations. He combines natural surroundings with unnatural lighting. He uses each cinematic effect in appropriate ways to express the mood and tension. This is the blueprint for all Vampire films that have followed. And very few have been as true to their core.

While modern Vampire films have a knack for flashy horror, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu is the most original and the most artistic. He shows us that he is completely taken with his subject and gives us something more than any other Vampire film has done. He scares us.


 Carlos Garza © 2000 Silent Orchestra