I have not seen that many silent films, I’ll admit, but with the original Nosferatu, you almost forget there’s no sound. The silent era was an era where the set-piece would often be the only real reason to watch a film: the Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin springs to mind.
Cinema was only in its infancy, and telling a story without sound is very hard to do. It must have been even harder back when coherency, and ‘the rules’ of filmmaking were hardly established. So, it makes it even more surprising that ‘Nosferatu’ is a chilling, scary, but above all brilliant film.
The plot is a direct lift of Dracula. and the daughter of Bram Stoker sued the maker, FW Murnau, and prints for the film were burnt. Luckily, some survived, which makes this film even more of a wonder.
Jonathon Harker, is hired by a recluse living up a mountain to find a home for him. After many run-ins with the locals of the town, and being advised not to go, he makes the trip anyway. He then meets the Count, who is a rat-faced, pale, vampire. Harker soon realises this, but too late. The Count wreaks havoc on Harker’s town.
It was the first ever vampire film, which makes it all the more relevant in these days of Twilight and True Blood. It was also, arguably, the first ever horror film, but some might say that that title belongs to Haxan, a film about demons and ghosts.
The vampire himself (played to perfection by Max Schreck, whose last name means ‘fear’) is a frightening, imposing, figure, who lurches forward at the sight of blood, just as every vampire is supposed to do. Except there is something in his eyes, something primal, and this injects the whole film. The set-pieces are epic, even in the time of 1922, and while it is not on the same level as something like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, it is clearly what paved the way for horror films of today.
Nosferatu is actually rather frightening. The face of the vampire is on a par with Freddy Krueger, and it is a truly haunting sight. When we find out the story, that merely adds to the tragedy. One potent scene, showing suspense at its height long before Hitchcock entered the fray, sees the vampire haunting the corridors, searching for blood in the form of his estate agent Jonathon Harker. As he looks in the door, down towards Harker, I found myself with the most curious sensation: I was genuinely scared. This is suspense and fear in its most undiluted form. The sight of him, lurching in that way is one of the most powerful images in cinema. We fear for what will happen to Harker: most of all we’re scared about Nosferatu himself.
Being taken from Dracula, the plot was never going to be bad, but I feel that this is far better, and scarier, than the 1931 American sound version. It is more visceral, it has power, even now. This is a film where the director believes in his vision, and has clearly put his heart into it. And that’s what this film has, underneath the set pieces: a heart. It is hard not to feel something about Nosferatu, be it repulsion, pity, or something deeper.
It might be over-analysis, reading into a performance that has no lines -but those eyes, those claws, that walk. Nosferatu might be a terrifying character, and even by today’s standards, is a great film.