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May 17, 2018

Nosferatu

by Franz Patrick


Nosferatu (1922)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Watching Max Schreck as the vampire Graf Orlok truly is a marvel. Although his face and arms are covered in thick cosmetics, there is not a moment when the graceful performer looks laughable or ridiculous. On the contrary, depending on the time of day and the shadows that rest on his face and limbs, the vampire can look like a sad creature or a predator that haunts one’s nightmares. Look at the way Schrek plays the character before midnight strikes and compare it once the both arms of the clock hits twelve. In a way, he delivers two performances. One is permanently embedded in film history.

The gothic horror film “Nosferatu” is not scary under modern horror standards. But just because it does not fit the current mold does not mean that the images have lost their power. On the contrary, they are fascinating to experience and examine exactly because we rarely or no longer encounter them today. The film, based on the novel “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, is directed with flair and panache by F.W. Murnau. It offers a wealth of images worthy of being appreciated—wether these are done on purpose or by accident.

The picture’s premise involves a man named Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) who is tasked to visit Graf Orlok in Transylvania, rumored to be the land of phantoms, in order to close a real estate deal. Most enjoyable is that the material takes its time to show Hutter’s journey, especially in showing the locals and peasants he meets along the way. Observe carefully when the protagonist enters an inn. For a second or two, the figures huddled in the background, who appear to be conversing, do not have faces. Or at least it looks like they don’t because their location relative to the camera and amount of lighting result in the obfuscation of their faces. They look like apparitions who eventually warn the visitor to go back from whence he came.

Notice the coach drivers who take Hutter to the outskirts of the creepy castle. (They refuse to go beyond the bridge because night is coming.) From afar, the drivers look like shadows with clothes on. We expect to see their faces and hands to be revealed as they move closer to the camera because light should be stronger as they inch toward the focal point of the action. But the thick shadows on these figures remain. As they move closer, the viewer begins to feel uneasy because drivers’ features during the shot are never revealed. Again, these images fit the rumor regarding the land of phantoms.

These are only two of the numerous examples of images worth noting during the real estate agent’s journey. And the picture isn’t even halfway over. I will refrain from describing Graf Orlok’s scenes inside his home and outside of it. They are best experienced firsthand. Observe carefully how lighting is utilized to enhance his shadow, particularly in how the shadows of his fingers appear to be growing in front of our very eyes depending on the changing angle of the light as well as the angles of the surfaces that serve as template. It is so impressive because this film was released before special and visual effects became prevalent. The filmmakers are required to be incredibly creative, patient, and imaginative in order to create such nightmarish imagery.

The best horror films establish a specific mood and “Nosferatu” is no exception. At first, I was frustrated by how certain scenes are supposed to be taking place in the middle of the night but it is clearly daylight outside. But because the atmosphere it creates is quite dreamlike, eventually I either forgot or stopped caring about the time of day. The viewers become invested in the action because there is a hypnotic quality in its hauntings.

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