Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Film Ignorance #6: Nosferatu

Film: Nosferatu
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: F.W. Murnau
Stars: Max Schreck
Year: 1922
Reason for Ignorance: Silent

Ignorance Rating: 57 (7 Votes)

I feel like I should begin by mentioning that I have seen more or less zero feature-length silent films that were not comedies of the Chaplin/Keaton variety. Accordingly, I'm reviewing this movie in a bit of a vacuum. But that's what this project is all about; by the end of Film Ignorance, I'll have viewed literally several more of these films.

In case you don't know, Nosferatu is F.W. Murnau's version of Dracula, but he couldn't get the rights to Bram Stoker's novel from Stoker's wife, so he just filmed the story of Dracula more or less exactly and just changed the names (hence, Nosferatu instead of Dracula).

Nosferatu isn't scary, not the way The Exorcist is, at least when you watch it on your laptop screen on the couch while nursing a sprained ankle 86 years after it came out. But it is impressively creepy. As one of the key examples of German Expressionism, it features many of the characteristics that make those films notable: grotesque make-up, eerie lighting, haunting shadows, decaying and desolate mise-en-scene. And the grotesquerie is not just limited to obvious candidates like Nosferatu the vampire and his mind-controlled minion Knock. The entire country, gripped by the plague of Nosferatu's feeding, has become a gross distortion of life; even our hero Hutter, with his Victorian clothing and haircut, strikes me as grotesque.

Knock (left) creepy. Protagonist Hutter: Also Creepy

We get a taste of this in the very first scene, in which our hero Hutter enters and gives his wife a beautiful bouquet of flowers. She recoils in horror, exclaiming: "But you've killed them." In the world of Nosferatu, the act of giving a bouquet has been transformed into an act of violence, the willful destruction of the natural world. Indeed, as creepy as Max Schreck is as the vampire, this is the scene that bothered me the most. It makes it clear that Murnau's vision is a totalizing one, and rendered the ultimate victory over the vampire merely a partial one. Hutter and his wife might get rid of the vampire, but they still live across the street from the foreboding gothic monstrosity that he purchased. With or without vampires, the world of German Expressionism is a terrible one.
Even if this weren't Nosferatu's shadow, it'd probably still freak me out

So, Nosferatu isn't a film that's going to scare you. And it certainly looks like a film that was made more than 80 years ago; the special effects are impressively understated and the film-craft on display is mind-boggling for the time period, but your average 21st century music video is superior in technical achievement. But Nosferatu is full of indelible images and remains, to this day, an amazing achievement in vision and mood. Now if only someone could write a decent soundtrack for it...

1 comment:

Luke Harrington said...

Agreed on the "soundtrack" bit. I ordered Netflix's "normal" copy, and the music had me reaching for the "mute" button after just a couple scenes.

Apparently, though, they also have a version with "goth" music. That could be interesting.