It's impossible to watch F.W. Murnau's 'Nosferatu' untainted. The 1922 classic is the fertilized, embryonic source of our modern vampires. Bram Stoker set the stage with 'Dracula,' and Murnau's cinematic creation is the sinewy strand that forced itself in to create life -- a race of cinematic bloodsuckers.
The German filmmaker set the visual menace and vampiric rules. Nosferatu is a beast who doesn't look, move or act quite human. His skin appears to be just a little bit different. His teeth are sharp and eager to pierce the skin and devour the ruby-red elixir. He sleeps in coffins, thrives at night and avoids the sun. Rats and darkness follow him, and although he is, in many ways, monstrous, there is also an eager gentleness with him, a thin tendril that links him to humanity. Nosferatu preys on humans, but he's also susceptible to sexual attraction. While most humanity has faded away -- if it ever existed -- lust remains, albeit in a distorted and dangerous package.
'Nosferatu' created the frame for modern vampires to exist, and to meet him is to see Max Schreck's wide-eyed visage through the haze of worthy predecessors and heaps of garbage. But even through the muddy air of imitators and modern sensibilities too refined for early cinematic style, 'Nosferatu' is still magical.
Watching Murnau's film today thrusts a viewer into a limbo between artistry and the restraints of age. Too much time has passed to watch the film blissfully untainted. Our cinematic sensibilities are too refined. After years of gut-wrenching performances, dialogue that cuts us to the bone and frights that up the ante year after year, there's no way Murnau's film can function as it was meant to. We are not the viewers from Murnau's day, fearing the rushing train heading towards the screen (and immortalized in another vampiric tale, 'Interview with the Vampire'). We demand too much and there's no way the film can hold up.
The Hutters' melodramatic movements seem silly. The blue tint of select scenes might alert us to the coming night, but a sea of blue does nothing to mask the sun's shadows on the ground as Nosferatu creeps forward. When the carriage moves through the mass of white trees, it's a clever technique, but we know it's a negative. The score often sounds dramatically silly rather than tensely nerve-gripping. Scenes are brief, often zipping through Stoker's source material at the speed of light. We get all too little of either of the Hutter's dalliances with Orlok; there's never a meeting between Nosferatu and his loyal slave, Knock. The film is shackled by silence and the constraints of a form just beginning to see life.
Nevertheless, there's a magic to Murnau's film. It's so fortunate that when Stoker's widow got the courts to order the film's destruction, some copies lived on. The movements in 'Nosferatu' are stunning against weathered and weary facades framing the menace. Moreover, the film not only set the stage for our on-going vampire love, it also offered up one of the most stunning -- if not the most stunning -- pieces of horror acting with Max Schreck's Nosferatu.
It's a performance that lives beyond its role and film. Nosferatu's rise from his dirt-filled coffin, his hunched shadow creeping along the wall -- these are the images indelibly burned into our collective horror memories, fan and newbie alike. His role is so real, so free of melodrama and so infused with menace that the film often seems like a documentary -- a real, aged story about a vampire's thirst for blood. After we laugh at the gasps and melodrama of the film's supporting players, Schreck's Nosferatu arrives and we suck the air in, Schreck's character still working exactly as intended, to rip us out of real life and provide a menace whether we're suffering with the Hutters or laughing at them.
And Nosferatu's death grip stretches beyond the film, offering tenseness and thrills not fully realized on the screen as much as in our psyches. Perhaps the film doesn't seem so menacing while viewing it, but after, the shadows become a bit more menacing, the dark corners a bit more ominous. Though Nosferatu dies in the sunlight, all of his monster smarts thrown out the window for a sexy lady, one of those nail-curling tentacles latches onto us -- our minds waiting for those claws to pull themselves out of our real-life shadows.
It's pretty remarkable what an impact that one, singular supporting role had on our cinematic landscape. Orlok and Nosferatu have only the briefest of scenes, but they're the lifeline of our vampiric present, and the warm, comforting blanket of fear when modern mentalities deem to sparklize our beloved demons.
-The tinting in the film is part of an old tradition to help set the mood beyond the constraints of technology. Do the blue tints make you feel the darkness of night, or seem like cheap technicolor?
-Modern prints of the film cleaned up the dirt, scratches and speed of the film. Does this enhance the experience -- seeing everything crisp -- or does that look of age help the mood?
-What is it about Schreck's performance that makes it so memorable to cinematic audiences at large? Is it simply that he came first, or is it something else entirely?
-As beloved as it is, 'Nosferatu' set the stage for new vampire rules by adding death-by-sun. Which additions to vampiric lore help the monsters' image, and which hinder it?