It must have been something to be a filmmaker in the 1920s, trying to imagine ways to scare people; you had a huge blank slate in front of you. Hardly any of it -- ghosts, vampires, werewolves, mummies, zombies, cat people, maniacs, monsters, homicidal killers -- had been done yet. Moreover, the negative connotations of horror had yet to take hold. Whereas most modern horror films are ashamedly snuck past reviewers, Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) was released to rave reviews. The great critic Carl Sandburg, writing in the Chicago Daily News, called it "the most important and the most original photoplay that has come to this city of Chicago the last year." We can only imagine what Sandburg would have said about F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922); he may have seen it, but he didn't review it. For my money it is the superior of the two films, made by a far greater cinema artist.

Like Wiene, Fritz Lang, Joe May and many German directors of his era, Murnau (1888-1931) worked in German Expressionism, finding ways to manipulate the images in the frame to a point beyond reality for maximum emotional effect. But Murnau was unique in that he used these images to express his personal fears and desires; he also intermingled realistic, nature shots with his bizarre, artificial Expressionist shots. He completed just over 20 films in his short career, and almost half of them are said to be lost. He was gay and constantly struggled with all the conflicting pros and cons of his emotions in his films. He moved to Hollywood in 1927 and made his masterpiece Sunrise there. Just a few years later, after completing his final film, Tabu, he died in a car accident.

It makes sense that he would have been drawn to the horror genre and its dark, physical properties, the way it affects the body. He made a handful of horror films in his career, including the lost films The Hunchback and the Dancer and a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as The Haunted Castle (1921) and a sinister, extraordinary version of Faust (1926). But Nosferatu (sometimes coupled with the subtitle: A Symphony of Horror) is singularly impressive, a standout in the genre, in the vampire film in particular, and in the history of cinema in general. It was based on Bram Stoker's "Dracula," but Murnau famously never obtained the rights to the book. He changed all the characters' names and hoped that would be enough. However, Stoker's estate noticed and ordered all prints destroyed. Luckily they were unsuccessful, and the film survives for us to enjoy today.

It begins as the grinning goofball Hutter (read: Jonathan Harker) (played by Gustav von Wangenheim) is dispatched to the castle of Orlok (Max Schreck) to sell him a new home in the city. Hutter leaves behind his pretty, sullen wife (Greta Schröder, in the "Mina" role), who seems to sense that something is wrong. Of course, something is wrong, and Hutter is soon complaining of twin mosquito bites on his neck. After signing the papers, Orlok leaves Hutter trapped in the castle, packs up several coffins filled with earth (apparently it's earth where victims of the Black Plague were once buried) and heads off to the city, bringing with him a new plague. Unlike Tod Browning's later, official version of Dracula (1931), Orlok doesn't arrive until the final stretch of the film, and there's little real interplay between him and the other characters. Browning's version was actually based on the stage play rather than the novel, and its focus was more on a dialogue-heavy, drawing-room drama. Murnau had something else in mind.

Nosferatu has many highlights; if you've seen any clip shows about horror movies or vampire movies, you've seen them. In one, Nosferatu rises, stiff as a plank, from his coffin. He just rotates upward on his toes without moving a muscle. It's absolutely chilling and I still don't know how they did it. Perhaps even creepier is the scene in which the vampire arrives via coach to pick up the traveling Hutter. Murnau films the coach moving in fast-motion, giving it a skittering, nightmarish quality. And one shot famously turns into a negative exposure, with the blacks appearing white and the whites appearing black. But a closer look at this shot reveals something really spooky: the coach and the vampire are still black, even though they should be white.

In other shots, the creature emerges from darkness and walks toward the camera, towards us, as if it were our own personal fever dream. This vampire, far from being a slick seducer, is more like a rat, with pointy ears and teeth, a bald head and impossibly beady eyes, ghoulish eyes that can somehow see into your soul. His scissor-like fingers round out his personage and the result is far more at home casting a shadow on a wall than appearing in person. Murnau juxtaposes these images with more natural images, such as Hutter looking out the window of his room at the inn and watching some wild horses, or merely empty frames of nature passing by (the ocean, or the wind). This is perhaps Murnau's way of suggesting that nightmares don't just happen in your sleep; they can just as easily encroach on real life.

On a technical note, Nosferatu has fallen into the public domain and there are several cheap DVDs available. I have two copies in my library: the 2000 release from Image Entertainment and the 2002 release from Kino. The Kino release runs 93 minutes, as compared with 81 minutes on the Image DVD, and the authorized Kino version is apparently restored from a film negative (the picture quality is much better). Both DVDs come with two optional audio scores (four different ones), but the scores on the Image DVD are far better than the ones on the Kino DVD, and the Image DVD comes with an excellent audio commentary track by Lokke Heiss.

And two footnotes: Werner Herzog remade Nosferatu in 1979 with Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz, and Klaus Kinski as the monster (with similar makeup). It's faithful in spirit and tone, but is not a shot-for-shot remake. And in 2000, writer Steven Katz and director E. Elias Merhige released the fun, intelligent, well-made Shadow of the Vampire, which imagines what the making of Nosferatu would have been like if Max Schreck were a real vampire. John Malkovich plays Murnau and Willem Dafoe was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Schreck. All of these are worth seeing: perhaps in a Halloween night triple-bill.

CATEGORIES Features, Cinematical