It always surprises me when I suddenly notice there are horror films I should have seen years ago but am only seeing for the first time now. F.W. Murnau's 1922 classic take on the vampire legend, "Nosferatu" is one of these films. What horror film fan would not take some time to watch this legendary creation? Well, me for one. I put it off for years due to my general dislike of the vampire sub genre. You can only take so many debonair duffers tooling around a castle sinking their fangs into the throats of girls before you give up in frustration. A few vampire films I like, such as "Fright Night," but as a general rule I can leave them more often than I can take them. It only took a few minutes of "Nosferatu" to discover this film wasn't going to be the type of vampire film I am used to seeing. You won't see a Frank Langella or Christopher Lee type playing the lead bloodsucker in this disturbing movie. One look at the hideous visage on the DVD cover provides ample evidence that the vampire in this movie won't wow the ladies with his good looks or suave charm. The vampire in "Nosferatu" is exactly how a vampire should look.
Set in Germany back in the nineteenth century, "Nosferatu" tells the horrific tale of an entire town stricken by the evil machinations of the rat-like Count Orlok, a truly sinister figure both loathsome and repellent. After a real estate agent named Knock sells the count his property, he falls under the spell of its gruesome tenant. The agent wants Orlok to come to Bremen, so he sends his assistant Hutter out to the castle. Harker's virginal wife Ellen objects to the sudden departure of her husband, but knows he must fulfill the obligations of his job. The scenes involving the trip to Orlok's pad and Hutter's subsequent stay are masterpieces of ominous foreshadowing. Animals bolt in panic as the coach nears the castle, the villagers fall silent when Hutter mentions Orlok, and his driver adamantly refuses to take the assistant to the castle. The count sends his own coach, an unusual device that moves supernaturally thanks to Murnau's use of fast motion photography. Obviously, strange things are afoot even before the vampire goes on his rampage.
Hutter falls prey to Orlok during his stay at the castle, but manages to escape and head back to Bremen to warn the town. His wife, in the meantime, suffers strange dreams and hallucinations that foreshadow her own encounter with the vampire. Knock goes off his rocker, and is institutionalized at the local jail. As for Orlok, he boards a vessel and heads to Bremen and a meeting with Hutter's virgin bride. The scenes on the ship are masterfully chilly. The count hides in a coffin in the hold of the ship, rising to feast on the unwary sailors. His movements on the boat, often accompanied by dozens of rats, nauseates even as it fascinates the viewer. By the time the movie reached this point, I couldn't think of a horror film character more hideous or repulsive than Orlok. When the ship reaches port, doctors fear a plague has killed the crew. They are partially right. A plague has reached town, but one these doctors have never seen before. Before long, townspeople start to drop like flies as Orlok pounds the cobblestones at night looking for Hutter's wife. The conclusion to the film involves no stakes, no holy water or crucifixes, but a good old fashioned German girl using her purity to destroy evil. I'll leave it you to see how she does it.
"Nosferatu" is a classic because a perceptive viewer can see so many themes in it. Is it a movie about sexuality, or Weimer politics, or a foreshadowing of the National Socialists? I'd like to promote a view of the movie I haven't seen yet (although it may be out there somewhere). I couldn't help but see a lot of potential anti-Semitic themes playing out in the movie. Orlok's physical presence resembles in no small way the depictions of Jews that often appeared in Germany even before the Third Reich rose to power. Associating the count with rats and plague is similar to how the Jews were portrayed in notorious anti-Semitic propaganda. I think, too, that the encrypted letter the count sent to Knock underscored what many Germans thought about Jews, that they communicated in esoteric languages and practiced a strange religion. Orlok, when he arrives in Germany, is an outsider, a dangerous foreigner seeking to kill and corrupt the good German people. Again, the Jews were always seen as outsiders with a hidden hostility to gentiles. The conclusion of the film only confirmed this thesis in my eyes, when a pure German woman using her wiles managed to defeat the evil count. Germans always worried about Jews marrying their women, so the idea that a girl could not only withstand the advances of the count but also use his lust to destroy him must have resonated deeply with certain segments of the audience. I could go on and on, matching certain scenes with how many Germans perceived the Jews.
I hope the film isn't anti-Semitic. But as a horror film, it is unmatched. Murnau's technical experimentation along with Max Schreck's portrayal of Orlok make this film a must see for horror fans. The DVD is good too, with a ton of extras. You get extensive liner notes on location sights, notes on Murnau's influences, still galleries, several different soundtracks, and a commentary track from a film historian. The quality of the picture transfer didn't look too good, but the movie is over eighty years old. If you haven't seen "Nosferatu" yet, you're missing out on a great experience.