NOSFERATU: F.W Murnau’s Gothic Classic

The German Expressionism era – known for its influence on architecture, art, and cinema – is considered a significant moment in the horror/fantasy genre, with many modern film-makers utilising its stylistic elements and techniques in features over the years that followed. One of the more well-known pieces of silent German cinema is Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors, F.W Murnau’s 1922 Gothic masterpiece that, in many ways, paved the way for genre horror films and completely encapsulated audiences at the time of its release.

Loosely based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, which would go on to inspire countless vampire-esque adaptations, Nosferatu follows real estate agent Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), whose latest client, the mysterious Count Orlok (Max Shreck), seeks a new residence in Hutter’s town of Wisborg. On his journey to Transylvania to meet with the Count, Hutter begins to suspect his dark nature, which reaches a crescendo when Orlok’s compulsion for human blood is revealed – alongside his fascination with Hutter’s wife, Ellen (Greta Schröder).

NOSFERATU: F.W Murnau's Gothic Classic
source: Film Arts Guild

A Symphony of Horrors

More than anything, Nosferatu proves that all you need to make a good film is a working camera, and light and shadow. Here, we get to see Stoker’s vision of Dracula as it was originally imagined, before the endless remakes and trivialisation of most Hollywood adaptations. Unlike Edward Cullen or Lestat, who rely on their supernatural strength or speed, Orlok represents another version of the vampire. Psychological in his attempts to gain control of his victims, he uses the fear of death as a weapon to grasp the mind and soul of those he encounters – a much more terrifying power. Indeed, he is often presented as a tragic figure, whose lust for human blood is a maddening ailment.

The film is brimming with iconic, instantly timeless shots that masterfully utilise the intricacies of light to give depth and tone to locations and sets. Cinematographers Fritz Arno Wagner and Günther Krampf use low-angle and point of view shots to showcase Orlok’s looming presence in the world, who is often highly contrasted to make him stand out even further. Speaking of, Max Shreck as the vampire Count is truly terrifying and perfectly cast; his spindly, lanky figure and towering height give him an undefined yet pronounced inhuman quality, as do his swift movements, overgrown nails, and haughty complexion.

NOSFERATU: F.W Murnau's Gothic Classic
source: Film Arts Guild

Noteworthy scenes that demonstrate his dominant screen presence as a villain can be found in his rise from a coffin on the lower deck of a ship, as well as his menacing ascent up a flight of stairs in pursuit of Ellen. These depictions not only showcase Orlok as a captivating antagonist but add a layer of allure and mysterious intrigue that reflect the attraction of vampires as a mythical creature. Unlike modern Hollywood blockbusters that rely on fancy CGI or vast set pieces, the camera is generally at a standstill, and Murnau uses basic stop motion animation to highlight changes in the speed of a coach or Orlok’s eccentric, animalistic movements. Further to this, Murnau has been credited as one of the first directors to use the montage as an editing technique – used here to inter-cut scenes of Hutter and Ellen.

The first and best of its kind

Symbolism can be found in a scientist’s explanation of the Venus flytrap, which is shot up close as a way of connecting Orlok’s sly manipulation as a predator on his prey. This, alongside themes of disease, death, seduction, and insanity are the more impressionable aspects of Murnau’s work, which lurk in the shadows alongside Orlok at the edge of the frame. There are other hints of a broader supernatural world beyond; the townspeople at a local inn whispering of werewolves, and visions of a deranged hyena skulking through an eerie forest.

Another aspect of film-making highlighted in F.W Murnau’s classic is the musical score, which is often under-appreciated in horror films of today. Nosferatu’s simplistic style means music is crucial, used to reflect the tone of a scene, and extenuate the images on the screen. Composer Hans Erdmann’s score is synth-heavy, eerie, and beautifully entrancing, with each change reflecting Hutter’s escalating anxieties that ultimately reach a booming climax. The tired formula of jump scares intermixed with the sudden strum of a violin is absent, and it’s refreshing to have a certain amount of consistency in a score that plays like an essential accompaniment, rather than a tool to elicit a cheap scare.

Nosferatu is a chilling, unsettling experience and a true case of mise en scène artistry. Murnau’s fearless adaptation ensures audiences consider his work with the utmost seriousness, as does his reverence for supernatural mythology. There is something to be analysed in each scene, with a rich visual style that makes subsequent viewings a must. A true masterpiece that should still be considered the best of its kind.

Is this the best vampire film? Who are your favorite vampires of cinema? Let us know in the comments below! 

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