NOSFERATU – Blu-ray review

F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” (1922) was adapted without permission from Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula” and, in some ways, falls short of the source material it exploited. Where Count Dracula was a seductive aristocrat who could easily pass for a man of high society, the film’s Count Orlok (Max Schreck) can’t pass for a man of any kind. His distended rat-like features, halting gate, and filthy elongated fingernails scream “I’m a vampire! I’m a vampire!” at full Nic Cage pitch.

Most of the film’s supporting characters seem to be there just to fill screen space. Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim – no, that’s not a porn pseudonym), the movie’s nominal Jonathan Harker, endures his share of abuse and keeps plugging away, but proves largely irrelevant to the story, as does the Van Helsing knock-off Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt) whose study of cannibalistic plants provides a suitably creepy counterpoint to the main story, but little more. Only Hutter’s wife Ellen (Greta Schroder) has a chance to exceed her literary equivalent (Mina Murray, sort of), ultimately saving the day though proving once again that it never pays to be the “innocent maiden.”

But “Nosferatu” is not a vehicle for a penny dreadful plot. It is rather, as its subtitle indicates, “A Symphony of Horror,” a symphony so elegantly conducted by director F.W. Murnau, producer/production designer Albin Grau, composer Hans Erdmann, and many others. It’s the visual flourishes that linger: Orlok’s phantom coach shot in negative and filmed in a stuttering high-speed that resembles stop-motion, the count’s shadowy fist clutching at Ellen’s heart, the depiction of a desperate plague-ridden town huddled behind in terror behind closed doors, and, of course, Orlok’s rigor mortis levitation from his coffin, perhaps the single most inherently supernatural shot in all of cinema.

Max Schreck (abetted by his grotesquely sallow make-up) is all controlled menace, a skulking animal who either clings to the shadows or coils to strike. He hunches his shoulders and pulls his arms in tight, finding a way to move his claw-like hands independently from the rest of his body, a signature gesture that has never really been replicated to such great effect. Though Schreck appeared in many other movies before his death in 1936, including another starring role for Murnau in “The Grand Duke’s Finances” (1924), it’s fair to say his film legacy has been defined by this single performance.

Murnau’s legacy is much vaster, though it was cut cruelly short by his death in a car crash at the age of 42 in 1931. “Nosferatu” essentially created a movie sub-genre that still thrives today, but many critics list “The Last Laugh” (1925), “Sunrise” (1927), and “Tabu” (1931) as even greater accomplishments by the director. That fact should only lead us to wonder how many exceptional films were lost in that accident, as surely Murnau was only just getting started.

“Nosferatu” was the director’s breakthrough, but it almost went unseen when Bram Stoker’s widow, with more than a little justification, sued distributor Prana Films for the unauthorized adaptation, leading to a ruling that required all extant prints to be destroyed. “Nosferatu,” however, proved exceedingly difficult to kill and the film survived due in no small part to the preservation efforts of the legendary Henri Langlois. Whatever your opinion regarding intellectual property, I’m sure you’ll agree we’re fortunate that the movie survived, even in its various contested and truncated forms. In retrospect, it was probably the best thing that could have ever happened to the Stoker estate.

The film is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

This high-def transfer is sourced from the 2006-2007 restoration by Luciano Berriatua on behalf of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung. As mentioned above, due to a lawsuit all of the film’s prints were supposed to be destroyed, but the verdict wasn’t fully enforceable so it has survived. However, the film has been released in various forms and running times. It even played in the U.S. in the 1940s in a version with the characters renamed as their counterparts in the Stoker novel. A single definitive version is therefore somewhat difficult to pin down.

This restoration used multiple sources, including a 1922 tinted nitrate print with French intertitles, a 1939 safety print, and others. Many scenes are tinted, some are black-and-white. Inevitably the restoration varies in quality from scene-to-scene and most shots exhibit signs of damage and deterioration. It’s easy enough to deal with the scratches when we get such sharp image quality throughout though, inevitably, some shots look a bit faded. It’s not a flawless high-def transfer, but nobody could have expected that given the film’s perilous history.

Kino has included two versions of the film on separate discs. Each is the same transfer as far as I can tell (both run 95 minutes, 29 seconds). Disc One uses English intertitles while Disc Two has German intertitles with optional English subtitles. Neither version is the original and this restoration started from a print with French titles. I have no rational basis for this claim, but the Gothic font used for the titles looks kind of… cheesy when it’s in English, but perfectly acceptable in German. Needless to say, I speak English, but the only German word I know is krankenwagen. Supposedly the font is matched to the original version, but I can’t attest to that.

I do not own the 2007 Kino “Ultimate DVD” release as a point of comparison, but it used the same restoration as its source.

Both versions (English intertitles and German intertitles) are accompanied by a “restoration of Hans Erdmann’s original 1922 score by Berndt Heller.” Erdmann’s score is fantastic and since I’ve never seen the film without it, I think of it as a defining feature. I do think it gets a little too insistent during Orlok’s assault on the sailors; the visuals are so striking they don’t need so much musical reinforcement. But that’s a very minor complaint. Kino has included the option to listen to the score in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 or LPCM 2.0. I am not aware of any significant difference between the two audio choices.

According to online sources, Kino’s 2007 SD release had a 3-minute documentary about the restoration which has not been included on this Blu-ray. However, the other extras have been imported.

The primary feature is “The Language of Shadows” (2007, 53 min.), a documentary by Luciano Berriatua which begins with biographical information about Murnau before delving into the specific of the film’s production. If you haven’t seen this feature before (it has been included on several home theater releases) it discusses details about the film’s (and Murnau’s) connection to the occultist movement. “Nosferatu” was the first and last release by Prana Film, a studio founded with the intent of distributing occult films, but the Stoker lawsuit ended that mission. The documentary also points out that Murnau had already been involved in another unauthorized “loose” adaptation of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

The disc also includes excerpts from several other Murnau films: “Journey Into The Night” (1920, 5 min.), “The Haunted Castle” (1921, 11 min.), “Phantom” (1922, 6 min.), “The Finances of the Grand Duke” (1924, 3 min.), “The Last Laugh” (1924, 5 min.), “Tartuffe” (1925, 5 min.), “Faust” (1926, 5 min.), and “Tabu” (1931, 2 min.) These clips feel like filler material designed to pump up the running time of the extras on the disc, and they’re probably also intended as teasers to induce viewers to purchase other Murnau films from the Kino library. Still, it’s nice to have them.

We also get a Promo Teaser for the restoration (1 min.) and an Image Gallery.

Film Value:
“Nosferatu” isn’t the first vampire movie or even the first movie appearance of a Dracula-based character (the 1921 Hungarian film “Drakula’s Death,” now lost, likely holds that honor though the film  had little to do with the Stoker book), but it is rightly considered the establishing film of the vampire genre. It’s as starkly beautiful today as when it was released, and this high-def transfer from Kino does a fine job presenting a film that was never supposed to survive. I don’t know if owners of the 2007 Kino DVD need to double dip, but this is definitely the North American region release to add to your collection if you’re a fan