Somewhere out there, there are movies which surpass the definitions of “classic,” a term I regard with skepticism, as what is deemed “classic” is always subject to opinion. Instead, consider movies so innovative that they altered their medium: “Fatima” (1897), “Intolerance” (1916), “Metropolis” (1927), “Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs” (1937), “Citizen Kane” (1941), etc. In modern times, “Psycho” (1960) and “Star Wars” (1976) are other prime “teaching films.” Not so much for their popular stories, but for how each refocused terms of narrative and visual effects on screen.
Now comes–as if it were new–F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror” (1922), a silent landmark that forged a genre through basic, often crude techniques of light, shadow, and special effects. Shot largely on location–something rare in early cinema–“Nosferatu” also stands as history’s first vampire film, forever redefining the likes of nightstalkers.
In a plot that’s near-identical to “Dracula” (which provoked legal problems for Murnau), “Nosferatu” stars German actor Gustav von Wagenheim as Thomas Hutter, a young accountant sent to Transylvania to secure the finances of the reclusive Count Orlock (Max Schreck) for his move to the big city — with Wisborg, Germany, substituting for Stoker’s London. Also co-starring are Greta Schroder as Hutter’s swooning wife Ellen, and Alexander Granach as an impish “house [or real estate] agent” serving as Orlock’s toady. “Nosferatu” lacks a Van Helsing or other, slayer-like adversary for the vampire.
While at times chilling, “Nosferatu” is hardly a frightening movie. In fact, most of it is charmingly comic, including a scene of Orlock drooling over a photo of Ellen (“Your wife has a beautiful neck!” he says), and Hutter believing that two marks he finds on his throat after a night in Orlock’s home are mosquito bites. Yet despite these cartoonish edges, Murnau’s film is no less engaging. In fact, “Nosferatu” is an atmospheric marvel, with crude sequences that are always coldly beautiful, framing great images as Orlock gazing out his window at Ellen, and a parade of coffins marching through Wisborg’s streets. “Nosferatu” was also the first story to suggest that vampires die in sunlight (never mind we see Orlock clearly walking in daytime), a detail followed religiously in vamp movies ever since — with the exception of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1994), which borrowed heavily from Murnau and other German Expressionists.
Seen on the big screen, and with live organ accompaniment–as I was lucky enough to view it–there is little about “Nosferatu” that can be understated. To many, Schreck’s vampiric performance has never been bested, although Klaus Kinski attempted it (with little success) in a 1979 remake of Murnau’s film. Instead, Willem Defoe (“Spider-Man”) arguably deserves credit for best rivaling Schreck in Shadow of The Vampire (2000), a fable speculating that Max might have been a real bloodsucker recruited by Murnau (played by John Malkovich) to provide his film added realism. Yet as enjoyable as Shadow was in its playful game of “What If?”, it is impossible to best the original screen vamp. Although may in Hollywood certainly have tried to do so.