Submitted by Ruth
One of the best things about Halloween at the movies is that it's one of the only times of year that most people have the rare opportunity to actually watch a silent film in the theater again. It's become fairly common, and wonderfully so, to stage revivals of such silent gems as THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI and THE GOLEM," for All Hallows' Eve. But the granddaddy of these remains the vampire classic NOSFERATU (1922)
Today, Bram Stoker's 1897 novel DRACULA is in the public domain, but this wasn't the case when German master filmmaker F. W. Murnau made this silent adaptation without permission from the Stoker estate. In an attempt to avoid a lawsuit, Murnau changed the title, the character names, and made a few superficial tweaks, while also adding an element that would forever become part of the vampire mythos--that exposure to sunlight can kill a vampire. Stoker's widow wasn't fooled, however, and successfully sued for all copies to be destroyed--or so she thought. Thankfully, a few prints survived.
Is this movie scary? You bet! Scarier than Lugosi's DRACULA?? Perhaps a matter of taste, but, yeah. This is German Expressionist Silent Movie Horror, and trust me, nothing is scarier than that. One might expect that a 94 year-old movie would feel dated, but in this case the film's antiquity only serves to increase the overwhelming sense of death and horror that permeate every frame. There are images in this film that are likely to haunt you for the rest of your life. This Count is not the slick, sexy, tuxedoed head waiter of your lusty nightmares; this vampire is a ghastly, rodent-like creature fit only to scurry among the shadows with his fellow vermin.
FYI, if you've never seen a silent film, I would recommend that you see one in the theater, with an audience, as it was meant to be seen. The group experience is like no other.
In our current era of constant remakes and reboots, that the F. W. Murnau classic would be remade at all would normally be heresy. However, when the fascinating director Werner Herzog undertook the project in the '70's he was very conscious of the place the film, and its filmmaker, held in Germany's cultural past. It was Murnau, along with G. W. Pabst and Fritz Lang, who had exerted their country's worldwide artistic influence on the burgeoning craft of cinema with such films as METROPOLIS (1927), SIEGFRIED (1924), and PANDORA'S BOX (1929). As a young man, Alfred Hitchcock was in Germany and was able to observe Murnau at work on another of his classics, THE LAST LAUGH, and was purported to be a fan of Lang, as well. The stylishness of German Expressionism forever left its mark on the Master of Suspense and his films.
It was this tradition Herzog felt the need to reconnect to. In a 1999 interview the director said:
"As a German filmmaker, we had no real fathers to learn from, no points of reference. Our father’s generation sided with the Nazis or was forced into immigration so we were a generation of orphans. And you can’t work without having some sort of reference as to your own culture and the connection and continuity, so it was our grandfathers–Murnau, Fritz Lang, Pabst and others–who were our teachers, our guidance. For me, Murnau’s film Nosferatu is the best German film ever, and I somehow needed to connect, I had the feeling I had to go back my own roots as a filmmaker. As an homage to him I chose to make this film.”
In his hands the material is not exploited, it is cherished.
As creepy as the original, utilizing many of the same locales of that film as well as being shot-for-shot in some cases, his remake adds the dimensions of color and sound. French actress Isabelle Adjani's performance in particular evokes the silent tradition using gesture, and expression, and dramatic, voiceless appeals to show her character's grief and turmoil, and when she does speak, it is in a strange poetry.
And speaking of speaking, the film was made in both English and German, filming a scene in one language, then immediately doing it again, exactly the same, in the other. Helpfully, the star, Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, manages easily in English, and the luminous Adjani, as his wife, speaks fluent German as well as English. Klaus Kinski, as Dracula, is terrifying in any language.
The definitive DVD from Anchor Bay contains a single disc, with English on one side and German on the other. Most fans prefer the German language version, as it is more authentic to the intention of the homage, and, well, it's just that much scarier in Deutsch, ja?
Of the two, it's hard to pick a favorite, though for sheer frightfulness I lean toward the silent version, which often seems like watching something actually shot in the year in which it is set, 1838, and that is quite creepy all on its own.
NOSFERATU, 1922, 10/10, and NOSFERATU, 1979, 9/10. DVD and streaming, and, quite possibly, at a theater near you.