Films based off of Bram Stoker's legendary novel, Dracula, have been a mainstay of film for longer than virtually any filmmaker working has been alive. The 1931 film adaptation starring Bela Lugosi has been remade over a dozen times, and has inspired more sequels and re-imaginings than any story not featuring Sherlock Holmes. (Perhaps it's no surprise that the one film character to have more appearances than Count Dracula also has more films to a single title, The Hound of the Baskervilles.) And for years, that was all there was to say about it. After all, it's not like Bram Stoker's widow sold the film rights to anybody before Universal started work on their version. And nobody but nobody infringes on Intellectual Property rights, right?
Enter Prana Films, whose ambitions began and, due to a copyright lawsuit, ultimately ended with Stoker's story. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, directed by German silent film veteran Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and starring Max Schreck, was to become the first film translating the story of Count Dracula- or rather, Count Orlock- to film. While Universal would create the Dracula we've come to know and love to hate, a suave, sophisticated Bela Lugosi who charms young ladies into his arms, Nosferatu (Orlock's “secret” vampire name) is instead a monstrous, clawed creature that towers above man and stalks his female victims from a distance like some sort of monstrous peeping Tom.
While anybody familiar with the story can see similarities between Nosferatu and Dracula, one thing I find striking is the fact that there are more differences between these films than the average film and its remake. While it's impossible to tell if this is because of budgetary restrictions that forced Dracula to more closely resemble the stage play or because screenwriter Garret Fort intentionally distinguished his script from Nosferatu's Henrik Galeen is hard to tell for certain, but at least one scene introducing Orlock/Dracula's penchant for blood that Galeen had added to the story was directly lifted for Dracula.
A large portion of Nosferatu is spent on the ship-bound transit from Slovakia to Germany. During this time, Nosferatu feeds on the crew, one by one, until eventually the ship's mate goes down into the cargo hold to discover what is making the crew not only ill, but mad. There, he sees a site that convinces him to jump off the side of the ship: A vampire rising from his coffin. Not only does this manner work well for a silent film, which attempts to avoid dialogue for obvious reasons, but it also works well for Nosferatu, a being that works much better as an unspeakable horror than he would be if he were led to interact with humans verbally.
The work they've done with Nosferatu himself is really impressive, especially for this time when film making was very much an experimental process. Almost every shot of Nosferatu is done from low angle, making the six foot three Max Schreck appear to be seven feet tall or more. The makeup is excellent, and if you've heard of this film before this review you probably know of the excellent shadow work they've done with this “character”. Perhaps even more unsettling is the way that Nosferatu can clearly be seen in some scenes leering out of the windows in his new home, clearly in lust with the main human character- the one who spends her days reading a novel about the myth of Nosferatu himself.
Rather than use dialogue and interactions between human and vampire, the film uses subtle hints to instill both a feeling of disgust and terror, and a fear of vampires, into the audience. Rats pile above the ladder that leads to Orlock's resting place, and Professor Bulwar- this film's analog to Stoker's Abraham Van Helsing- teaches classes about carnivorous plants. As I mentioned above, leading lady Ellen spends much of her time reading a book filled with frightening tales of vampire Nosferatu, which ultimately includes a suggestion for how to kill him. In addition the musical accompaniment, while not a score in the sense that we know it today, does its best to convey a sense of fear and suspense as the film shows us coffins being carried in the streets as locals die of a “mysterious plague” which we are left with little doubt as to be caused by the Count's late night deprivations.
It is with the eye of a viewer over nine decades past that clear flaws and weaknesses can be seen in the film. While it is certainly in the right to be without sound, that cannot be ignored in the process of judging and recommending a film- nor can the narration, which is given in a difficult to read cursive font that at times must be paused in order to be properly and completely read. To a lesser extent, I was amused to find what may be the world's first day for night shot as the sun could be clearly seen shining through the curtains during a seen shot in the hours before sunrise.
If you're a fan of horror in any form, I tend to recognize this film. The biggest caveat I would add to this recommendation is that if you are a slow reader, you may struggle to keep up with some events, and if you can not bring yourself to watch a silent film, this will not be able to change your mind. Any film student interested in the history of the film or the arts of cinematography and frightening directing, on the other hand, absolutely must watch this film at least once.