Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens
Director: F.W. Murnau
Screenplay: Henrik Galeen (based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker)
Stars: Max Schreck (Graf Orlok, Nosferatu), Alexander Granach (Knock, an Estate Agent), Gustav von Wangenheim (Hutter, His Employee), Greta Schroeder (Ellen, His Wife), G.H. Schnell (Harding, Shipowner), Ruth Landshoff (Annie, His Wife), John Gottowt (Prof. Bulwer), Gustav Botz (Prof. Sievers)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1922
Country: Germany
Masterworks of the German Horror Cinema
Made several years before the creation of the horror film genre or the more specific vampire film genre, F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent classic Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens was a groundbreaking gothic film whose creative camerawork and dark cinematography is still copied in the movies of today.

Nosferatu was an unauthorized reworking of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, which single-handedly revived the myth of the blood-sucking vampire. The film evokes a grim moodiness from Stoker's material that has rarely been captured since. Even in its primitive cinematic form, Nosferatu is in many ways more convincing a tale than the hoards of imitators and followers that have been made in the last 75 years. Although Dracula has become the most-portrayed character in horror films (appearing in some 122 different variations), Nosferatu will always be the first and one of the best.

Screenwriter Henrik Galeen keeps Stoker's basic storyline in tact, but streamlines it by eliminating some characters, discarding the multiple first-person narratives, shifting the location from London to Bremen, and changing the names of all the other characters to avoid copyright problems. Therefore, Count Dracula becomes Graf Orlok, also known as Nosferatu (Max Schreck); Jonathan Harker, the young real estate agent who travels to the Count's eerie castle, becomes Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim); Mina, his beautiful wife, becomes Ellen (Greta Schroeder); and R.M. Renfield, the real estate agent driven into insanity by the Count, becomes Knock (Alexander Granach).

German director Murnau and cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner (who worked on several of Fritz Lang's films, including Spies and M) create a constant sense of dread with their masterful control of lighting and shadows. Unfortunately, few good prints still exist of this film, and even digitally remastered videos are still flawed and sometimes hazy. Nevertheless, it is not hard to see how well they understood the basic tenets of light and dark and how to manipulate them on-screen to create the proper mood, tone, and visual effect.

Nosferatu contains a number of memorable scenes, including Hutter's carriage-ride up to Orlock's sinister castle on the hill, Nosferatu's shadowy hand literally gripping Ellen's heart, and the final scene with Ellen sacrificing herself to trick the vampire into staying in her room until after the sun rises. Nosferatu dispenses with much of the vampire lore--garlic, stakes in the heart, crucifixes, holy water--and utilizes only the myths that vampires must sleep in coffins surrounded by the unhallowed dirt in which they were buried and that they cannot go out in the daylight.

As the titular vampire, Max Schreck creates a unique screen persona that is not the handsome, eccentric Count in Stoker's novel or the tragic beauty in the popular vampire novels of Anne Rice. Instead, Schreck's Nosferatu is as an evil monster to the core. With his bulging eyes, narrow ratlike face, stiff stature, and unnaturally long fingers, Schreck's Nosferatu is an ugly, scary creature of the night.

Because Nosferatu is silent, almost all of its power is derived from its haunting imagery. Many of today's films are too reliant on dialogue and plot set-ups, forgetting that the truly mesmerizing aspect of cinema is the imagery, the lighted pictures projected before our eyes in the darkness. No matter how many vampire films are made from now until eternity, Nosferatu will always stand as a striking example of the power of pure, primal images to evoke fear and horror.

Masterworks of the German Horror Cinema DVD Set
Nosferatu is available as part of a two-disc DVD set titled The Masterworks of the German Horror Cinema, produced by Elite Entertainment and National Film Museum, Inc. The set also includes new restorations of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and The Golem (1920). In addition, the set includes the only remaining footage from Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire (1920), which was directed by Robert Weine, who also directed Dr. Caligari.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioDolby 2.0 Surround
SupplementsStills gallery featuring original artwork by art director Albin Grau
DistributorElite Entertainment
Release DateJanuary 25, 2000

The new transfer of Nosferatu was obtained from a positive print that had been stored in German archives. The print's age shows in the extensive damage in the form of scratches, nicks, dust, and visible film grain. However, this was apparently the best source available for a new transfer, and despite the imperfections, the eerie beauty of Murnau's film still comes through vividly. There are only a few brief scenes that are truly hindered by the source damage. Otherwise, the image is generally sharp, and the black-and-white photography is nicely balanced in terms of tone and contrast (this version does not contain any color tints, which is more or less a matter of taste). Unfortunately, in order to utilize the accompanying soundtrack, this version of Nosferatu was digitally mastered at sound speed (24 frames per second), rather than the 18 frames per second at which it was shot, which makes the action unnaturally fast and jerky. This is the disc's biggest disappointment.

The musical track was mastered from a 35mm soundtrack with music track. The score, which was composed by Peter Schirmann, is not particularly enthralling or memorable, and some parts seem wildly out of step with the action on-screen.

The only extra on the disc is a still gallery that features artworks by Albin Grau, one of which served as the cover art for the original German pressbook. Because it has such a rich history and has been so influential, Nosferatu would have certainly benefited from a running audio commentary track (there is a commentary track available on the disc issued in 1997 from Image Entertainment).

Copyright © 1998, 2000 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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