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You have to admit there is something special about a film
that remains as terrifyingly effective today as it was 80 years
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.
score on the 2001 DVD release from
Image Entertainment unifies these qualities.
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
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