As the ur-horror film and the first masterpiece from the second visual master of the cinema (tied with Eisenstein; Griffith was the first) Nosferatu could crumble under the surfeit of weight on its back. And, like a steadfast Atlas, it holds up the earth with the gravid, implacable charisma of an obelisk engulfing a totem pole. F.W. Murnau’s incandescent grasp of cinema as a mythical creation capable of inscribing dreams and nightmares in the sky had not yet been matched by anyone in the medium (rather than achingly poetic dreams on alternate planes of reality, Griffith’s and Eisenstein’s films were more monumental architecture, or theater and dance respectively to crib from Godard). And, without much squinting, it’s almost as easy to claim that no one has actually dreamt Murnau’s dreams as well as Murnau in the 85 years since his untimely death.
Murnau’s final completed film, Tabu, is so intoxicating because it dares glimpse the possibilities of a medium’s future, but, honestly, such a hyperbolic statement applies to nearly all of Murnau’s films, each a beguiling mixture of hyperbole galvanized in folklore and cathartically stirred with a restful placidity that keeps them from imitating Fritz Lang’s more bellicose, boisterous, deadlined constructions from the same time period. While Lang’s films tighten the screws until they almost break the hinges of our sanity, Murnau’s cinema assumes something beyond sanity as a starting out point, functioning more like murky pools of non-lucid dreaming to float around in while the restless demons around you slowly circle overheard.
Murnau’s films are diabolical, but while Lang kindled diabolical into the most ruthless extremity of the German efficiency principle (he masterminded the finest cinematic machinery of his era), Murnau’s devil is more clandestine, more subterranean in the way it resists scaring you for a more lurking threat sustaining the perpetual possibility of being scared in its wings. Lang was a master of Eisensteinian montage, an authoritarian rabble-rouser within our world, while Murnau seems to evaporate from corporeal being and tenant an alternate, translucent plane of the unknown.
In Nosferatu, that unknown is Max Schreck’s Count Orlock, a failed attempt to acquire the rights to Bram Stoker’s Dracula that plays on the screen like a fascinating perversion of the character (“if you can’t beat them, turn them into Max Schreck” essentially). Schreck’s gaunt, malformed, perpetually askew form is not unlike the ballooning, dominant Dr. Caligari swallowing his skeletal, subservient servant Cesare. A disturbance of tentative human flesh, Orlock is both bulbously engorged with the very lifeblood of death that maintains his malarial presence, and simultaneously shriveled and emaciated by his perpetual submission to the very tenuousness of the life he lives in servitude to his own deathly status. Agent and victim and some mistreated, malignant animal in between them, Orlock the vampire is a grotesque walking nightmare, an embodiment of jaundiced life swallowed up in secrecy and shadow that threatens him as much as anyone.
The malevolent but suave aristocrat, a beacon of death hiding behind swaggering, strutting, gracefully floating life epitomized by Bela Lugosi’s inimitable turn as the creature, is a vision of the vampire that is excoriated in Nosferatu, a film that instead curdles the vampire down to an almost metaphorical idea of rotting aristocratic decay that is viciously and unforgivingly corporealized in Schreck’s dismantled countenance and parody of the human form. In Dracula, aristocracy is an incision into the world; in Nosferatu, it is a starving, cruel swine, a figure corroded by the very feeding on society that ostensibly satiates it. Nearly Buñuelian in its depiction of the elite as a monstrous force unable to interact with the world around it, Nosferatu’s vision of shelled-in wealth as a self-sequestering, self-immolating self-inflicted wound is frightening. Without romance or beauty, there is only vilification and outright pity for the beast.
The quintessential work of German Expressionism – a style Nosferatu didn’t invent, but at least codified – and the cinematic apex of German-film-as-German-folklore (and this from the man who would direct Faust), the unknown in Nosferatu is also the creeping rot of aimless death itself. Or more specifically, death is the suspended-in-limbo terror of semi-life doomed to feed on life in order to maintain its own quasi-corporeal status; Orlock, with his mindless obsequiousness to the primal addiction that drives him to fell regions of the world, is entombed in the liminal space between life and death, essentially doomed to vaguely survive without even the distant rumor of thriving. With Fritz Wagner and Gunther Krampf’s shards-of-light cinematography often displacing Orlock from the physical world and curtailing his very existence as a flesh-wrapped being, the shadows that suggest Orlock and assert his agency over the characters (creeping up on them in silhouette) also shatter the perception that he is fully of the human world at all. Rather than merely secreting acid onto our reality and inducing a fit of subjectivity, the expressionist shadows that frequently derail Orlock’s three-dimensionality in the frame also deny Orlock the very agency over life that he can never truly exist within.
Images of domesticity early on – still shrouded in Murnau’s subfuscous shadowplay – feel like flickers of our mortal coil fighting, and failing, against the unearthed tomb of otherworldly terror, positioning Nosferatu as a mausoleum for the very human kind that the director would eventually chariot to luminous, heavenly clouds with his first American feature, 1927’s Sunrise (not one of the, but the best silent film ever made). A rumination on the occult as well as the dying of the light of positivity in the world, Nosferatu is a plane of terror that finds humanity hollowed-out by a festering, carnal addiction to life itself – corporealized in Orlock’s unquenchable blood-drive – that leaves everyone in its wake a congealed mass of once-human parts curdled into a humanoid form of conditional humanity.
The narrative, with Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) visiting Orlock in his secluded abode in the Carpathian Mountains to sell him a home in Bremen, unfolds with a discomfiting lack of event or cathartic reaction. The vampire hunter Van Helsing isn’t even a distant whiff of a presence, and the only thing that curtails the sickness Orlock brings with him to Bremen is the passive realization of Ellen (Greta Schroder) that, in dying herself, all she can do is submit to Orlock in an attempt to bring him down with her. Unlike the novel Dracula, this is no B-adventure story about gallantly combating evil; this is a tone poem about a world where adventure is a meaningless construct, and where death is the only solution to the liminal state occupied by Orlock.
Undeniably beset by some nagging social fears about Eastern European (read: Jewish) men if read socially, Nosferatu is at its most formidable as a poem or a disturbed, almost cosmic descent into another plane of existence altogether. As with most of Murnau’s films, the elegant simplicity of his innocence-and-malice cocktail is the unmodulated, unmediated-by-realism potency of his primeval imagery in a primeval conflict that unfolds in hastily sketched scene transitions that feel almost atemporal (much like a dream). The galvanic, dreamlike potency of the shots themselves, rather than their linking in the narrative, is the crux around which Nosferatu ensnares your soul. The unromantic depiction of the passing coffins and the rotting Bremen streets, because of the film’s reticence about explaining them or Orlock’s situation, allow the shots to burrow into the subcutaneous mind and devour you from within, sans any pacifying understanding of “why” or “how” they exist at all. The death Orlock brings inexplicably seems to effuse from his very being.
Nosferatu doesn’t necessarily rise to the silent-cinema acme of Murnau’s later works. His two-year-later The Last Laugh alone is not even nominally within the annals of horror and yet offers a more threatening terror that dances with but definitely does not serenade traumatic memories of Germany’s aristocratic past. Murnau’s torrential filmmaking inscribes subjective post-WWI German trauma into the film’s expressionistic imagery with a frightening sophistication cut with Murnau’s undeniable, almost protoplasmic understanding of the unmitigated, affect of the singular image. In that film, the artifice of the final moments themselves even invaded the existential void of the film, which concludes with a disarming post-modern announcement from the filmmakers that the ostensible savior of the ending is a fictitious angel that can’t truly absolve you of the world’s post-traumatic stress. Future endeavors aside though, that Nosferatu was the peak of cinema in 1922 is almost inarguable. And that it remains a beguiling glimpse into the conditional mortality of our very sanity is something you wouldn’t dare deny when Orlock, or at least the figment of him granted tangible power by the film’s imagery, might be right around the corner.