More than ninety years since it was made and released, 'Nosferatu' is no longer the sort to elicit fear and terror in its audience. Today, we have over half a century's worth of vampire lore depicted on film — some good and some mediocre while a good chunk ranges from bad to just plain awful. We've grown accustomed to its presence, been desensitized to the mortal danger it should ideally provoke. Shown either as a ruthless supernatural monster or symbolic of a freedom from sexual repression, death and a subversion to cultural practices, the bloodsucking menace of the night has become somewhat ordinary, routine, and generally accepted. However, this 1922 silent classic reminds us that this was not always the case and continues to be cherished as the precursor to our familiar stereotypes.
For audiences of the early silent-film era, the subject of vampires was nothing new — starting with Richard Oswald and Arthur Robison’s 'Nächte des Grauens' (1916) and Károly Lajthay's Hungarian silent 'Drakula halála' (1921). But many of these early depictions featured sexual predators or followed the criminal exploits of an underground subculture, as in Louis Feuillade's 'Les Vampires' (1915). What 'Nosferatu' did differently was show the creature as the bloodsucking supernatural being from European folklore — a mystical, ghostlike figure whose sheer presence was a terrifying sight in itself. As seen in the film, this is a fiendish monstrosity with the disturbingly uncanny ability to hypnotize and seduce it's victims into submission, and we can only assume audiences at the time would have been doubly shocked and mesmerized by what they saw.
Working from a script by Henrik Galeen ('The Golem' (1915) and 'Waxworks' (1924)), the now-legendary filmmaker F.W. Murnau occupied the screen with images of a ghastly figure walking in and out of the shadows. With spellbinding, unblinking eyes on a deathly-pale, wraithlike face and hideously long, sinewy fingers that seem capable of ripping a person apart, Max Schreck's portrayal of Count Orlock is one of the most admired and unforgettable sights ever committed to celluloid. Under Murnau's direction, Schreck's performance is an unearthly, nightmarish spectral whose creepily slow skeletal walk seems as effortless as the wind, making Orlock an abomination and curse of nature as well as its invention and design. Part of the film's lasting success is without doubt Schreck.
The other part of its success is, of course, Murnau's camerawork and his use of common tricks of the trade, most notably in the editing and cinematography. Orlock's grim carriage, which looks like a horse-drawn hearse, glides noiselessly along the rocky roads at the speed of the wind; doors and caskets open on their own to reveal Orlock's unnerving face; and the creature walks unnoticed through neighborhoods with the same measured crawl of a hungry tarantula. Like Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) when he first sees the vampire standing in the middle of a vast empty room, barely visible within the shadows, we can't look away and are actually fascinated by him and what he is, hideous and fearsome as the vampire is. The film may not be scary to contemporary audiences, but 'Nosferatu' remains creepily effective because Murnau's strikingly surreal images of Schreck's captivating monster haunt our nightmares.
Murnau's masterpiece of horror cinema is also quite famous for being an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, a fact which led to a legal battle that almost erased the film from existence. Even so, the filmmakers tried to disguise any similarities through a variety of methods, such as changing character names, but the one significant revision from the novel has also become the film's single most influential aspect: the death of a vampire via sunlight. Actual folklore makes no such mention aside from daylight weakening a vampire's powers, but here, in an act of self-sacrifice, Ellen Hutter (Greta Schröder) holds Orlock until sunrise when the rays of the morning turn him into a puff of smoke. Since, this, death by sunlight has been a common vampire trope, demonstrating 'Nosferatu"s immense impact on cinema and its cultural significance.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings F.W. Murnau's 'Nosferatu' to Blu-ray as a two-disc package under the distributor's "Kino Classics" label. Housed inside a normal blue keepcase with a glossy slipcover, both Region A locked discs sit comfortably on opposing panels. The BD50 disc contains the film with English intertitles and special features while the second BD25 disc shows the film with German intertitles and English subtitles. At startup, they go straight to an animated menu with a poster-like photo and music.
According to a couple text graphics at the start, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode was made using a brand-new HD master of archival 35mm elements from various sources thanks to the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation. Considering the film's age and the condition of the prints — which I'm sure have suffered a good deal of damage over a span of nine decades — the results are extraordinary, to say the least. Of course, the presentation is not exactly pristine, showing some minor deterioration in a few scenes and lots of scratches throughout, but for the most part, it's difficult to imagine the film could look better than it does here. That is, without serious digital manipulation and alterations.
All things considere, the 1.33:1 image displays excellent definition and resolution, revealing the threading and stitching of costumes in many sequences. Fine lines around buildings are quite distinct, often shockingly so, especially Orlock's newly-purchased mansion in the fictitious Wisborg. Schreck looks particularly creepy because we can actually make out the finer details in his face and plainly see the individual fingernails of disturbing, spidery hands. Scenes switch color tones to reflect the time of day or lighting conditions, and they look great. Contrast is well-balanced and crisp, and while blacks could be a tad stronger, brightness levels are acceptable without ruining the shadow details. Overall, Murnau's immortal classic awakens on Blu-ray with remarkable results.
The surprises continue in the audio department with a modern, orchestral rendition of Hans Erdmann's original 1922 score, which was conducted by Berndt Heller. Kino Lorber provides fans with two listening opinions, both of which are outstanding in their right: a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack and an uncompressed PCM stereo track.
Normally, my preference leans towards the latter because more often than not, stereo is more accurate and faithful to what listening to a live orchestra sounds like. And in this instance, such remains true; however, for some reason, the low-end seems somewhat lacking and restrained. This is most apparent during pieces with cellos and drums. Don't get me wrong, bass is present and quite audible, yet it doesn't have the impact and power one would expect from music. On the other hand, the 5.1 track exhibits a potent, throaty low-end that resonates throughout the room, providing the music with appreciable weight and presence.
The other difference between the tracks is the obvious use of the surrounds, where the latter bleeds the sounds of various instruments into the background and generates a satisfying immersive soundfield. The latter is, of course, front-heavy, but both display exceptional fidelity and warmth as they spread evenly across the entire soundstage. Dynamic range is precise and extensive, reaching into the higher frequencies with brilliant, distinct clarity and detail without the slightest hint of distortion.
While it may not be as scary to contemporary audiences as it once was, F.W. Murnau's 'Nosferatu' remains a creepily effective motion picture with strikingly surreal images of Max Schreck's captivating performance as the immortal Count Orlock. Haunting our nightmares with atmospherics visuals, the 1922 classic silent film continues to mesmerize and amaze as it depicts its bloodsucking monster like an unearthly, wraithlike spectral whose creepily slow skeletal walk and deathly pale face is unforgettable, making it a masterpiece of horror cinema. This Kino Classics Blu-ray edition of the film arrives with remarkable picture quality and a splendid audio presentation. With a nice, healthy collection of supplements, the overall package is a must for any cinephile's collection of classics.