When a new technology is released upon the world intended to improve the quality of home entertainment aficionados of cinema begin crafting their most wanted list for that new format. It occurred with video tape, briefly for laser disc on through DVD up to Blu-ray extending now to 3D. For the moment there are still a number of titles awaiting the high definition remastering that dedicated film buffs can still get excited about. One movie that has just been on each of my personal successive list has made it to Blu-Ray; Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens’ or translated from the German, ‘Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror’. The title most frequently associated with this cinematic masterpiece as ‘Nosferatu’. For many younger viewers this movie has little to warrant the attention and devotion so well deservedly heaped upon it. It is in black and white, shot in the Academy ratio of 4:3 and it is a silent movie made in Germany in 1922. If any of these aspects is a deal breaker for you that watching this movie will be a wondrous experience and much needed education. This is the great grandfather of all vampire films artistically crafted before the grandparents of those responsible for ‘The Twilight Saga’ when on their first date.
The film was one of the first endeavors to bring horror off the pages of classic literature to the new invention, the motion picture screen. In the early twenties the burgeoning auteurs residing in Germany were embracing the expressionist movement, a dark off shoot of a similar style in painting. The main precept of German expressionism as manifested by the filmmakers was a highly stylized visual experience cloaking subtext and nuance infused in the movie. The psychological concepts of betrayal, attraction and the very fundamental nature of sanity were explored under the shroud of the dark recesses found in every human mind. Visually movies of this motif are stunning, surreal and simultaneously beguiling to the mind and an assault on the rationality we attach to our senses.
The studio behind ‘Nosferatu’ wanted to take on one of literature’s most intriguing horror stories; Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ but unfortunately his estate would not release the rights. This necessitated changing the names and many details of the situations and circumstances. What was indeed quite fortunate for the generation of devoted horror fans to follow the screenwriter, Henrik Galeen, reworked Stoker’s story to meet the legal requirements while retaining the moody atmosphere of the novel. Many would go so far as to state this telling of the tale is more terrifying than the original. Taking up the challenge of directing the script was one of the most influential artists in the German expressionist movement, F. W. Murnau. He was one of the original masters of horror, the genre ancestor of John Carpenter, Dario Argento or Tobe Hooper this man was the trail blazer opening new frontiers in terror.
Some of best known elements of the novel are retained albeit in a rather general fashion. Replacing the Englishman sent to Transylvania to visit a new client in this version a German, Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is dispatched to the ancient and forboding country. There he is to meet with Graf Orlok (Max Schreck). Just the mention of his client’s name is met by the locals with fear and, the required pair of female leads, traditionally Mina and Lucy is transformed here for the sake of copyright to Hutter’s wife, Ellen (Greta Schroeder) and family friend Annie (Ruth Landshoff). The story proceeds in a familiar way but even for those fans well versed in the intricacies of the novel or the officially sanctioned 1933 ‘Dracula’, will be amazed how a few twists and turns mandated by the courts provides a unique take on the story and a different experience.
I have, for the most part, adamantly against the modern trend of turning the monsters of our favorite creature features into angst ridden romantic leads. Rather than instilling fear they have teenage girls choosing teams and drawing hearts around their pictures. If you are of this mind set please wait a few years until your cinematic appreciation matures significantly. There is nothing remotely romantic about the vampire, called Nosferatu, to comply with the agreement, as portrayed by the late, great, Mr. Schreck. He is the epitome of horror, the very embodiment of nightmares. His fingers are elongated, spidery claws ending in sharp talons. The head of the creature is a rounded dome with dark, deep set eyes and bat-like pointed ears. The mouth lacks any sensuality; it is barely human gash across the face barely covering his thirsty fangs. This is not a creature that sparkles in the sun; he is a demonic manifestation of pure evil lurking in the darkness. My family and I had this twisted figure on tee shirts with the caption "Team Orlok". It was disappointing how few caught the joke.
Under Murnau’s direction the existential influences of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, are incredibly evident adding a dimension most of the traditional treatments seem to lack. This filmmaker achieves what so few that followed could, the perfect blend of psychological horror with a deeply visceral feeling of fright that consumes the audience. Every single frame of this treasure was meticulously remastered to pristine condition. You will be able to take in the brilliance of this film like no previous audience has ever been able to. There is a scene that is one of the truly defining moments in the history of horror films. The setting is a staircase deep in shadows. All that is seen is Orlok’s silhouette is seen slowly ascending the steps. His misshapen form exaggerated with horrific effect. This is but a moment that is indicative of the visual style at its very foundation.
This two disc set is exceptional. Not only does the high definition 1080p video impart new life into the film but there is a notable soundtrack. A feature of silent films was frequently the soundtrack. The original 1922 soundtrack composed by Hans Erdmann as performed by the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra. There are both Dolby 2.0 and enhanced 5.1 versions of the audio. Stereo rendition might be closer to what was herd by the original audiences but as was the case of the video the technological boost to the advanced presentation is wondrous to experience. Kino had been behind the groundbreaking remastered edition of another silent great, ‘Metropolis’.
Hans Erdmann's Original 1922 Score