It’s very hard to come to a film like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie Des Grauens (A Symphony of Horror) in any way fresh; not only is it nearly 100 years old and tells the same story as many other films (as well as books, TV shows and more) but pretty much every scene has been restaged in one way or another (be it in Werner Herzog’s remake or in countless parodies and tributes).
Somehow though Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece remains gripping and impressive.
The story is, very obviously, that of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, just reworked slightly (initially in an attempt to avoid copyright) so its set predominantly in a small German town, rather than London, and various characters are reworked, but the general gist is the same.
We start out meeting Ellen and Thomas Hutter (Murnau’s versions of Mina and Jonathan Harker) and Hutter is soon packed off to Transylvania to sell a house to the mysterious Count Orlok (played in exceptional fashion by Max Schreck).
After a genuine musical overture and opening credits its clear from the start we are in a similar territory of German Expressionism to that of Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari with slightly heightened sets using some otherworldly angles.
This though is visually far less fantastical than Caligari and the main visual treat of most of the film comes in the location shooting with some impressive vistas, considering the equipment being used, with Orlok’s castle and house in Wisborg, both filled with ominous shadows, really work to build the sense of mystery and tension surrounding the titular vampire.
The visual that most feels part of expressionism comes with the vampire himself with a performance centred on a brilliantly developed mime and some make up that, even now, has a creepy edge that seems to almost entirely hide the actor, but in a genuinely effective way.
It is when the plot shifts from the mountains of Transylvania and back to Wisborg that the film changes slightly from its source material as the vampire comes to represents a pestilence more than the almost lust driven Dracula and we get a tension building set piece of a town besieged by a perceived plague tat follows the vampire.
The dénouement contrasts a mob chase across the town with the more personal side of the story of Ellen, Hutter and Orlok. So, while the townsfolk chase Knock (this stories answer to Renfield) who they think is responsible for the trouble out of the town, Ellen is left to realise that she is the key to ridding the town of plague, and the world of Orlok.
This leads to Nosferatu’s key scene as the spindle fingered, shadowy vampire makes his way into the heroines bedroom and, despite knowing the outcome and having seen it done elsewhere so many times, the tension builds to breaking point before the cock crows and the sun rises.
Films from the silent era can often be near incomprehensible beasts as the visual and stylistic language they use is so different from what we see in cinema today.
Here though Murnau uses embryonic versions of a lot of that language to tell a story that rolls along at a fair speed but with enough pacing to build tension and, at times, creeping horror, while also experimenting with what were, at the time, new innovations in location shooting and some basic but well executed special effects.
This new edition, from Eureka’s Masters of Cinema line, also helps as the HD presentation is as crisp as possble and a new recording of the original score really brings the film to life in a way previous DVD and video releases hadn’t quite managed.