‘Nosferatu’ Review: A Study in Silence

Posted in Screening Room by - October 02, 2014

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is unlike any film I’ve ever watched for a multitude of reasons but the most important is that it is a silent film. Since it lacks audio it relies on tactics to convey dread and suspense that are taken for granted in current horror films. However, the inability to use sound does not hinder Nosferatu as much as I thought it would, but that is not to say that it doesn’t have some unique problems that stem from it being a silent film.

The film is structured in through the use of acts similar to a play since in the 1920s that would have been the most common form of entertainment of the time. This structure allows for the film’s pace to seem faster than it is. The pace of the film is also aided by many fade-in and fade-out edits that continue to reinforce the idea that it was structured to mimic a stage play. I was really taken back by the pace of the film as I expected it to be slow and plodding since it didn’t have CGI or any complex physical effects to use as a crutch to move the film along. I didn’t feel at any point while watching Nosferatu that it was dragging or not using its time wisely to move the story along.

The locations and sets of the film are also extreme standouts of the film. Since the film doesn’t have green screen or matte paintings to rely on, everything is shot on location which is unheard in modern film. This adds to the raw feeling of the film since when you see the boat that takes Orlok from Varna to London, you know that it is a real boat and the inside of the boat on-screen is the real interior of the boat. Orlok’s castle is slightly underwhelming but the use of shadows in that set which allows Orlok to appear and disappear out of thin does help to reinforce the suspenseful nature of the film. I was surprised by the raw feel of the sets and it helps create a sense of dread throughout the film.

The plot of Nosferatu is an unauthorized “adaptation” of Dracula except for the names have been changed to avoid any copyright infringement. The protagonist Jonathan Harker is been laughably renamed Thomas Hutter and Count Dracula has been renamed Count Orlok which I think has more sinister quality than Dracula. Even the title Nosferatu is an archaic Romanian word for vampire. It follows all of the plot cues from Dracula: Hutter is called upon to sell a house to Orlok, Hutter travels to Translyvania (why they didn’t change the location is beyond me, I guess there can’t be vampires anywhere other than Translyvania), Harker meets and realizes that Orlok is a vampire, you see where this is going.

The plot doesn’t do anything different from the original novel except leave out some major characters such Abraham Van Helsing who plays a crucial part in the climax of the story. I wasn’t disappointed with the plot but it didn’t challenge anything that I already knew with just cursory knowledge of the novel.

The real reason that anyone would have to get a hold of Nosferatu (even though it is available in its full form on YouTube) is to watch the performance of Max Shreck as Count Orlok. After watching the film, it disappoints me that Max Schreck isn’t as well known as Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney Jr., Boris Karloff, and Béla Lugosi for his portrayal of a classic movie monster. Every second that Shreck is onscreen as Orlok is mesmerizing; from the minimalist facial appliances that he is wearing to the way that his eyes move before his head does he captured my attention. It would be understandable that since it is a silent film that Shreck might have felt it necessary to over-exaggerate his actions to convey a deeper sense of dread however the performance is surprisingly subdued.

Schreck’s onscreen movements are very calculated and his long arms and legs are reminiscent of a spider. The play of light and shadows when Orlok moves creates dread as well since he seems to appear out of the darkness and then return to it with no hesitation. Since Schreck has no spoken dialogue in the film he doesn’t have some of the perks that Chaney or Karloff had at their disposal which allows his raw acting ability to come through which should put him in the revered pantheon of classic monster actors, at least in my mind.

Even with Schreck’s scene stealing performance and the quick pace, Nosferatu has not aged well in my opinion. Apparently none of the either actors or actresses in the film took cues from Schreck since their overacting drew me out of some scenes completely. Gustav von Wangenheim, who plays Hutter, is the worst offender since his facial expressions are exaggerated to the point of comedy and his scenes with Shreck are a study in contrasts.

Along with some of the performances in the film, the plot is hard to follow due to the sparse text cards that in some cases don’t help to explain the plot. One of the more bizarre text cards is between Hutter and his wife regarding some flowers, which also happens to be the first text card of the film. Most of the film is explained through scene setting cards which is a missed opportunity to flesh out some of the characters in the film. 

Nosferatu lived up to some of the expectations I had for it and surprised me on others. The performance of Max Schreck stood out as the centerpiece of the film and satisfied everything that I hoped it would be and then some. His performance is overlooked in the classic monster movie pantheon mostly because of the film it’s in. The pace and sets of the film surprised me since I was expecting it be slow and look cheap but the sets helped reinforce the dread of the film while it was also well paced.

However, Nosferatu is not the kind of film I would watch in its entirety again; I would pick out specific scenes with Schreck to validate the master craft behind his performance. Whenever Schreck is off-screen the film suffers and makes the viewer yearn for another appearance by the unsettling Orlok. Nosferatu is a showcase of Schreck’s acting talents which warrant a watching but it does little outside of that to become a truly memorable monster movie.  

Final Say: Watch It

Who Said What?

Professor Bulwer: “Wait, young man. You cannot escape destiny by running away!”

This post was written by
Chris Stachiw is the Editor-in-Chief and co-host of the Kulturecast. He's a native Californian with a penchant for sarcasm and a taste for the cinematic bizarre. You'll often find him wandering the wasteland of Nebraska searching for the meaning of life and possibly another rare Pokemon.
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