On 4th March 1922, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony Of Horror premiered in Berlin. More than a hundred years later, I watched the horror film for the first time, wondering if it still holds up. Of course, I had seen the famous clip of a hunched creature walking up the staircase with pointed claws, but I never knew that Nosferatu was a German film as I assumed it was one of Hollywood's early creations. Having already watched The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, another German Expressionist horror which came out in 1920 and ultimately inspired Tim Burton, I realised that it was German filmmakers who created the creepy face of modern cinema.
Nosferatu is a silent film which relies on visuals, title cards, and music to tell the story. If you know anything about Dracula, the plot won't be unfamiliar to you. In less than an hour and a half, for free on YouTube, you can call yourself more cultured for watching this so-called movie masterpiece. If you have never seen a black-and-white silent film before, the style of physical acting is very different from what we watch now, but Nosferatu is striking and suspenseful. To this day, horror movies use a mixture of silence and sound to spook us, and this is how it all started. For an audience in 1922, watching this on the big screen alongside a live orchestra would have been truly terrifying. After all, Nosferatu was banned in Sweden until 1972 for being so scary.
Nosferatu remains compelling because of the creepy character design, exaggerated facial expressions, and unnatural movement. There is no gore, but there is lots of creative camerawork using light and shadow to create chilling shots on screen. Not to mention, Nosferatu paved the way for some scary-movie staples, including self-opening doors, levitation, and monsters appearing out of nowhere. This film features beautiful calligraphy in the handwritten props, and the set design is much more varied than I had expected, especially since this low-budget production was only made with German audiences in mind before it catapulted into eternal fame.
While I am keeping this review vague enough to be spoiler-free, there were a few moments of Nosferatu which unsettled me, even as a century-late viewer. Here are my top five frights:
1. Seeing the Count's rigid body rise out of his coffin with that feet-first camera angle is a masterclass in how to unnerve an audience.
2. Hutter's sped-up coach journey with a chilling coachman and the covered horses in a disorientating cloaked carriage was freaky.
3. Knock's character gave me the creeps from his first scene to his last, especially his warped facial expressions.
4. After the Count goes up the stairs, the shadow of his claws stretches towards the door, creating a sinister image.
5. During the manhunt, the silhouette of that scarecrow looked so strange.
Naturally, there are drawbacks to watching a 100-year-old movie. It is easy to see that the cuts between takes rarely line up properly. We are so used to seeing impeccable editing, smooth transitions, and steady camerawork now that Nosferatu looks a little bit rough around the edges by comparison. It's also important to remember that this was a time of experimentation in early special effects, what appears laughable today would have been mind-blowing in 1922. While there are visual gems and gripping moments in this film, some of the scenes are too long-winded, especially on the ship. Lastly, this physical acting can look too overdramatic to the modern eye, but this is to compensate for the lack of a script. Most actors in this era were trained for the stage, where you need to use bigger movements so that the people at the back can see what is happening. It was a while yet before movie directors wanted something simpler on-screen.
Would I recommend this film in 2022? Absolutely. If you're open-minded to seeing something a bit different, you can click the button below to watch Nosferatu for free in high definition. All in all, even a century later, it is still better than a lot of new releases on Netflix.
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