Everyone go see Nosferatu at archive.org! This is a vampire film before it became a silly cliche, a vampire film before the vampires became romantic tortured souls, back when they were barely formed things out of the ooze of of our symbolic nightmares. You will not find much character depth or subtlety in this 1922 work, but you will find a steadily creeping sense of dread and a memorable exploration of what it’s like to be stalked by death. Answer: It’s freakin’ scary!
Nosferatu closely hews to the plot of Dracula, with a stupid real estate agent visiting the gloomy castle of a creepy count, who then follows him back to his homeland, killing along the way, and only the real estate agent’s wife, with which the vampire is obsessed, can stop the Black Death. Though Bram Stoker’s widow won two suits to stop distribution of F.W. Murnau’s film because it ripped off her husband’s novel, copies of the film had disseminated too widely for them all to be pulled.
Fortunately for us, the best, moodiest, most unforgettable vampire film remains in circulation today. The form — silent except for music, black and white except for blue-tinted nights and red-tinted sunsets — strips the story to its schematic, structuralist basic: a story of light and shadow. While Ellen, the real estate agent’s wife, glows in her white nightgown, Nosferatu is literally a shadow sliding across the walls, menacing innocents with his mere disembodied presence. The one-color tints for different times of day also add eerie feelings. The pale blue tint of night gives a cool, icy, drowning sensation to all scenes, while the red tints of sunset communicate alarm, sensuality and, of course, blood.
None of this color and light symbolism would work if it weren’t for the actors…or one actor in particular, Max Schrek, who plays Nosferatu. As stiff as a coffin plank, he doesn’t seem to walk or float so much as he just manifests, further away and then closer. He does very little except for looming, but he incites the mad realtor Knock to fidgeting and murder and Ellen to dangerous sleepwalking. Nosferatu’s minons, the bubbling, squeaking rats, link him explicitly with plague and, in their seething motion, demonstrate the confused panic he incites in humans. But, in a genius twist of interpretation, Nosferatu doesn’t really seethe himself. He merely exists, inexorable, quiet, pitiless, dire. While he does roam from place to place, in the end, he lets his victims come to him, for he is death, and no one can resist him.