#26 - Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau)

Time is on My Side, Yes it is.

There’s something about silent films that makes them ideal for the horror genre. The fact that there is no sound apart from music and the oftentimes scanty presentation of these films give them a really eerie edge. Of course, the “shitty” presentation has proven itself to be quite an effective quality of many great horror films; just think of “The Night of the Living Dead”, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Evil Dead”. The lackluster presentational values make these films much more effective because it gives the events that they are portraying a strange layer of realism.

And the same rings true for old silent horror films. At times watching F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” feels much like watching a documentary made in the 1920’s, making it almost like a godfather piece for the low budget horror films that came in the decades afterwards. And this is certainly not true of, for example, Tod Browning’s “Dracula” which very much undermines this effect with its overly theatrical staging and acting.

And although most roles in “Nosferatu” are quite theatrical, the crucial one is not.  That role being the one of Count Orlok of course, played by Max Schreck, who in my opinion is to this day one of the most unsettling presences on the screen. But what makes him so unsettling?

The make-up and the overall design of his look are the obvious things to point out and it’s easy to see why this makes him so unsettling. He is very much modeled after a rat and, lets be frank, no one really likes those. His fangs are frontal, like a rat’s. And his hands and posture look very much like a rat’s when the creature is standing upright on its hind legs. The effect is further enhanced by Schreck’s slender and tall build, with gawky arms and elongated fingers. His presence in the film is also often foreshadowed by rats, and the spreading of the plague. This gives an interesting twist on the subtext of vampirism as well. While generally it is associated with venereal diseases like syphilis, here Murnau decides to replace it with the plague.

Another interesting thing that the director does in the film to enhance the general unease of Orlock’s presence is that he uses various optical and editing effects including fast motion for Orlock’s movements (again making him look like a rat even more), negative shots and even jump cuts. But he also uses suspense to great effect with slow and foreboding movements of Orlock towards the camera, and shadow-play shots of his disturbing silhouette.

All this makes “Nosferatu” a truly great piece of horror filmmaking. And while contemporary horror films struggle to truly frighten their audience and have become more obtuse and more dependent on cheap and predictable scares, “Nosferatu” remains timelessly unsettling in its simplicity. I would actually say that time is just making it more exotic and strange, and with that more real and more effective. And in a certain way that is an unsettling thought in its own right.

Original title: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens


Max Schreck - Count Orlok
Gustav von Wangenheim - Hutter
Greta Schroeder - Ellen Hutter
Alexander Granach - Knock


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